In the Boat: tossed about

Jesus-boat-storm2Tossed about: it describes Jesus and the disciples. Jesus had already wanted to be by himself in prayer before the encounter with the great multitude of people who need “rescue” from hunger (Mt 13:12-21). Their need becomes the wind and waves that toss Jesus about as he responds in compassion. The disciples are directed to go ahead by boat – and they will be tossed about on the seas.

22 Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

This is the only place after the initial period in the wilderness (4:1–11) where Matthew specifically mentions that Jesus chose to be truly alone, sending his disciples away. This pericope (scholar language for “story”) is the first time in the Gospel according to Matthew that Jesus is pictured as praying. Even in Gethsemane he will keep three of the disciples with him (26:37). Matthew does not elsewhere mention Jesus’ habit of praying alone, as in Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, though he has of course recorded his instruction to his disciples to pray in this way, 6:5–6. It would be possible therefore to read this unusual note as indicating a particular crisis at this point in Jesus’ ministry. But that would be an argument from silence, and Matthew gives us no indication of the subject of Jesus’ prayer. In the narrative context the solitary prayer in the hills serves rather to explain how Jesus comes to be so far away from his disciples on this occasion when they find themselves in difficulties. (France, 569)

24 Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. From Jesus praying alone in the hills the spotlight shifts to the disciples in trouble (again) on the lake—and this time without Jesus in the boat to rescue them. This account is not the first time that the disciples have been in a storm-tossed boat with Jesus (see 8:23-27) – even then he asked why they had such little faith. But this account is the first time the apostles have been without Jesus.

If the disciples are rowing from somewhere in the region of Bethsaida (suggested by 14:13–21) to Gennesaret (v. 34) it is surprising to find them so far from the shore, but presumably they have been driven off course by the contrary wind. The situation seems to be similar to the storm in 8:24, though the focus in this narrative is on the wind (vv. 24, 30, 32) rather than the waves. The disciples’ predicament this time is the inability to make headway rather than an imminent danger of sinking.

Possible symbols in Matthew’s narrative. Many scholars have noted that Matthew reworks the account in Mark 4:35-41. Matthew’s rewriting of Mark emphasizes the separation between Jesus and the disciples; Jesus was “by himself…alone “ and the disciples are “a few miles offshore.” It is perhaps this idea of being sent forth alone that should receive the narrative focus? The disciples are in the storm-tossed boat, symbolic of the church’s stormy missionary journey through history, sent forth alone, and Jesus, who represents the presence of God, is not with them. At the level of Matthean understanding, this may be the meaning of Jesus’ “made” them (v.22) to depart (anankazō – to compel [EDNT 1:77]).

We should be mindful that each Sunday we sit in the “nave” of the church, a word whose origins come from the Latin navis which means “boat” or “ship”. The “ship” we are in was not intended to stay tied up to the dock. The boat/church symbolism of 8:23-27 is strengthened by representing the boat as “being tortured” (basanizō) by the waves (not the disciples laboring at rowing, as in Mark). This verb is normally used of people (Mt 8:6, 29) rather than a boat. In both cases, Matthew allows his symbolism to shape his description, for in both cases he is thinking of the suffering the church will experience during its mission on which it is sent forth “alone” (i.e., without the Jesus who promised to always be with them, 28:20).

The picture is not limited to its ecclesial and missionary symbolism, however. The sea itself in biblical thought connotes the forces of chaos, held at bay in the creative act of God, but always threatening (Gen 1 : 1-10; 7:1 I ; Pss 1 8:1 5-1 6; 69:1-3; 107:23-32; 144:5-8). To the biblical mind, being on the sea is itself a threat, representing all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of the created order. To be at sea evokes images of death, the active power that threatens the goodness of life. The sea is here a barrier that separates the disciples from Jesus, who represents the presence of God. In the midst of the chaos of the world, they are left alone in the boat/church, with only their fragile craft preserving them from its threat, buffeted by the stormy winds of conflict and persecution, mentioned three times (vv. 24, 30, 32).

Notes

Matthew 14: 25 the fourth watch of the night: between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. The Romans divided the twelve hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. into four equal parts called “watches.” Some have questioned how the disciples would have seen Jesus coming on the waters, approaching in the dark. The mention of the fourth watch might indicate that there was already a hint of pre-dawn light.

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