Sinking

10 August 2014
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14A (RCL)
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-23

Unfortunately, we leave out the verses which contain Joseph’s dreams in the OT reading. Joseph’s brothers could be excused for not liking the lad. This story bears some resemblance to Greek tragedies: the gods have decreed a fate, and try as they might, the humans in the story cannot avoid that fate. In this instance, however, things turn out well for the protagonist. Scholars consider the Joseph “novel” on of the finest examples of the Wisdom tale, or the story of the suffering righteous one. Joseph is persecuted at every turn, but vindicated in the end. As such, he serves as a good stand in for the nation upon its return from Babylon (although of course, things weren’t quite as grand as hoped for). The story gives the hearers reason to hope — God’s decree will come true in the end. Just hang in there.

The story of Jesus walking on the water is another kind of familiar tale. Both Mark and Matthew record two instances of a miraculous sea crossing. Both instances are followed (at the remove of several chapters) by a miraculous feeding in the wilderness. In the first crossing/feeding set of miracles (in both Mark and Matthew), Jesus is in the boat, 5000 are fed (plus women and children) and there are twelve baskets of fragments left over. Between the two miracles, Jesus heals the demoniac named legion (battalion) by sending the pigs over the cliff, and heals Jarius’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood. When he raises Jairus’ daughter, he commands those in the house to “give her [something] to eat.” He also instructs the twelve to go to no one but the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The crossing/feeding represent a bath/meal motif that is found throughout the Judaisms of the time, connected to passover. It reflects Moses’ crossing of the sea, and feeding the people in the wilderness. In this first instance, the people being included in this new meal across the dangerous boundary are the unclean of Israel. When Jesus feeds the multitude, he instructs the disciples to “give them [something] to eat yourselves.” It is the same instruction given to those in Jairus’ house. The raising of the dead, those excluded from the table, happens in their restoration to table fellowship.

In the second set of miracles, Jesus is not in the boat, and when the disciples see him, the think they are seeing a ghost. I believe this implies a retrojected resurrection appearance. The gospels are recording a significant moment in the history of the movement by an appeal to the risen Lord. Between the second crossing and second feeding, Jesus encounters the Syro-phoenician woman, a Gentile, a woman and a “dog.” Jesus’ mind is changed by her quick retort, and he heals her daughter. Jesus is staying in a home in the region of the Decapolis, almost certainly a Gentile home, so he would have had to eat from Gentile utensils. At the second feeding, 4000 are fed and seven baskets left over. This disconnects the feeding from the twelve tribes of Israel. Gentiles are now being included in the table fellowship. The encounter with the Syro-phoenician woman shows how hard this transition was for the early community.

Matthew adds the detail of Peter stepping out of the boat. In my mind, this looks an awful lot like the incident recorded by Paul in Galatians 2. At Antioch, Peter had eaten with Gentiles, until certain men from James showed up, and then he withdrew. He sank in the face of the storm of controversy. Matthew links this event with the resurrection appearance in his Gospel by the repetition of some rare words. The word translated as “doubt” is distazo, which really means to be of two minds. Once Jesus is in the boat, the disciples worship him. On the mountain, when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him, though some doubted — the same word. These are the only two instances of this word in the NT. Jesus, on the mountain, then gives the command to make disciples of “all nations,” using the word usually translated “Gentiles.” Peter’s nerve failed him, and he couldn’t make the transition from an all-Jewish community to Paul’s mixed community. Matthew sees the inclusion of the Gentiles as the post-resurrection direction of the church, and includes an appearance of Jesus to get us out of the boat.

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