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Victor Cancino, S.J.August 09, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

Serving God can be hard. For some, avoiding God is even harder. Sunday’s readings highlight two servants of the Lord from different eras. One runs away from his ministry as prophet, while the other sinks before his own identity. But when each one calls for help God listens. 

O you of little faith, why did you doubt? (Mt 14:31)

Liturgical day
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kgs 19:9-13, Ps 85, Rom 9:1-5, Mt 14:22-33

Can you hear God speak to you in calm and in chaos?

Are you running away from who God calls you to fulfill your potential?

Do your doubts strengthen or weaken your faith?

In today’s first reading, Elijah is on the run. In the chapter that preceded this Sunday’s reading, he is called “the disturber of Israel,” since Elijah orchestrated the humiliation of Israel’s false prophets as well as their execution by the Wadi Kishon (1 Kgs 18:40). The Lectionary leaves out a key question that the Lord asks Elijah twice, “Why are you here?” (1 Kgs 19:9, 13). Elijah understood the accusation. He is a prophet on the run and hiding from the Lord who is calling him back to service. He is able to hear the Lord’s nearly silent voice.

The nearly silent manifestation of the Lord to Elijah contrasts strongly with the previous chapter. There, Elijah comically encourages false prophets to make a loud, showy display to inspire the foreign god Baal to respond to their prayer. Their efforts fail, and Elijah makes his own prayer to God who responds. By contrast, in this Sunday’s reading, it is Elijah who has to wait as the wind, earthquake and fire fail to reveal the presence of God. Only in “a tiny whispering sound,” which the Hebrew text calls “utter silence,” does Elijah recognize the presence of the Lord (1 Kgs 19:12). Elijah may be on the run, but in this moment of stillness he discovers that God remains near to him. 

Serving God can be hard. For some, avoiding God is even harder.

This Sunday’s Gospel, likewise, highlights Peter’s unique relationship with Jesus. Several Gospels relate that Jesus walked on water, but only Matthew mentions the unique role of Peter in this narrative. The howling wind reflects the motifs of this Sunday’s first reading, but unlike Elijah, who remained patient through the chaos, Peter is distracted, begins to sink and cries out, “Lord, save me!” (Mt 14:30). Jesus responds to Peter’s desperation with strong language, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31). This reaction seems harsh, but it is necessary for the fisherman-turned-disciple to learn that faith in Jesus must reach previously unknown depths.

Jesus addressed Peter as “you of little faith,” but Peter is also the first leader of the Christian community after the death and resurrection of Christ. One way to pray with this scene is to recognize Jesus training Peter for that future responsibility. Jesus calls Peter to grow into who he already is, a man of deep faith. Peter’s moment of doubt is trivial in light of the confidence that Jesus is ready to place in him. Jesus saves him so that Peter can someday be the one who strengthens the other disciples. 

This Sunday’s readings evoke the possibility of finding the presence of God within silence or storm. But the experiences of Elijah and Peter reveal more than that. Elijah is called “the disturber of Israel” and Peter “you of little faith.” Elijah finds the divine presence in a whispering sound while Peter finds it while drowning in a storm. The prophet and the disciple are both able to listen to the divine voice regardless of the circumstances, in calm or chaos. Elijah and Peter hear a call to become fully themselves as servants of the Lord, a role Peter cannot doubt and from which Elijah cannot run.

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