Eighth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
Jesus calms the storm—not dominating nature but restoring a relationship of peace!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Following “immediately” on the story of the “feeding the five thousand” as this Sunday’s Gospel does, the text provides opportunity for extending our consideration of the relationship between Jesus’ care of humans and the ecological contexts in which that care occurs. There we saw how placement of the story in “a deserted place” illuminates Jesus’ care for human well-being as part of his care for the whole of creation. And we made a few suggestions about how this relationship might be reflected in the life of a congregation. The narrative of today’s Gospel redoubles the learning, except that now it moves in the opposite direction. Here the movement of the story is from mountain wilderness to the disciples on the sea and it illuminates the significance of Jesus’ relationship to creation in his care for human creatures.
Jesus sends his disciples out on the sea to meet him on the other side, while he moves more deeply into wilderness and then ascends “the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23). Jesus’ movement, Warren Carter suggests, “evokes Moses’ ascent of Sinai, where he prays (Exod 32:30-34; 34:8-9). It also alludes to worship on Mt Zion (Isa 2:2-3)” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p.309). Of course, this is not the first time Jesus ascends “the mountain.” Just as the story of the feeding of five thousand in “a deserted place” reminded us of his first temptation in the wilderness, so also does this ascent to a mountain recall the third temptation, in which Satan took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s purposes for the creation, affirmed by that story, may be assumed here also, as the ascent recalls not only the mountain of temptation but also the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (5:1). Indeed, as Carter notes, this is the first scene involving a mountain ever since Jesus’ descent in 8:1 at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Carter, p. 309).
We have argued earlier in this series that Jesus’ frequent “return to the mountains” carries much significance for care of creation. Our comment on the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount is relevant here as well:
What exactly is it about mountains that renders them appropriate sites for divine epiphanies and revelations? Why does one expect to encounter God there and to obtain guidance as to how one should live? That the mountains manifestly transcend the plain where life is normally lived is obvious, as also is their seemingly eternal duration through time. . . . [S]tanding before them is an impressive experience; and awareness of their enduring presence greatly enhances their credibility as witnesses on God’s behalf. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols” (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint. Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (p. 114). (For Southgate’s observation that such places need to be protected as part of our responsibility for care of creation and the reference of this quotation, see our comment on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany).
Jesus joins in the mountains’ praise of God.
Jesus’ return to the mountain at this point thus underscores his intimate relationship with God, for which the remoteness of the mountain from daily life provides social space and psychological distance. Jesus, as it were, joins in the mountains’ praise of God.
In Matthew, the mountain stands for all creation
Jesus’ ascent of the mountain serves an additional purpose, however, in that it reintroduces the mountain to the narrative as a complex metaphor for creation, understood as an entire living system. As we noted in our comment on the assigned lessons for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, for today’s readers of the Gospel,
a mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some measure to the entire globe, for example, by the measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them in their search for understanding the dynamics of global climate change. To those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the well-being of the whole Earth.
What was Jesus praying on the mountain?
Jesus’ ascent of the mountain at this point in the narrative of the Gospel thus underscores his relationship not only to God but also to the mountain and the creation that it represents. Again Carter insightfully points to Jesus’ action as obedience to “his own teaching on secret prayer (6:5-6). Presumably from 6:7-15, he prays for the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of God’s empire, the doing of God’s will, the provision of food and forgiveness, and for trust that God will accomplish God’s purposes. The subsequent miracle derives from his relationship with God (cf. 11:25-27), hallows God’s name, and expresses God’s empire and will” (Carter, p. 309). We would sharpen the point, because we think Jesus’ prayer for the coming of God’s empire would specifically include the request that God’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—in conformity with his role as Servant of Creation. Indeed, his very presence on the mountain, understood as the representative of the entire creation, already represents something of a realization of that prayer. And the encounter that follows upon his descent does so even more dramatically.
God’s presence is in the silence.
The text admittedly says nothing of Jesus’ time on the mountain, other than emphasizing his solitude there. The reading from 1 Kings 19:9-18, however, suggests a pattern of action that is supportive of our interpretation. When Elijah, also alone, on the mountain of Horeb, encounters God in the silence after wind, earthquake, and fire, his conversation with God spells out God’s will for Israel. As Carol Dempsey points out, as Earth quiets itself, “God gives Elijah a series of directives that offer the prophet hope (vv. 15-18) and, more specifically, that deal with the problem of covenant infidelity” (Dempsey, New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 160). What follows in the narrative of 1 Kings is a working out of those directives. Similarly, we would suggest that what happens upon Jesus’ descent also serves to respond to the problem of faithfulness (considered somewhat more generally than covenantal fidelity) as a crisis in the relationship between God as creator and human creatures.
In the Elijah narrative, we note that God’s presence is emphatically not identified with the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, but rather with the subsequent silence. So also, when Jesus rejoins his disciples and finds them in peril, the sea similarly quiets itself. In both narratives, the presence of God—for surely Jesus here stands in for God, as the disciples confess him to be “Son of God”—is signaled by the quieting of creation’s turbulence. So also, in both narratives, the resolution of the crisis comes as a restoration of faith.
The relationship of God to the creation is typically characterized by the quiet after the storm.
Why is this significant? It suggests that the relationship of God to the creation, in such moments of decisive significance as these epiphanies are, is typically characterized by the quiet after the storm, or a state of rest like that which followed God’s creative activity on the seventh day of creation, or like the peace that followed the raging of the storm in the narrative of the great flood. In the moment of that stillness, the people are freed from their fear of the God they encounter in the experience of creation’s awesome energies. Jesus’ approach breaks the power of the fear that so easily casts our relationship to nature in a conflicted, oppositional mode. Thus, in his descent from the mountain, Jesus brings with him the state of peace between himself, God, and the creation, a state of peace for which he might well have appealed in his prayer on the mountain.
It is important to emphasize that the storm and the quiet are complementary aspects of one experience of God’s presence. There is a tendency in the interpretation of this text to view the wind and the seas as representative of chaotic forces in opposition to God, which, because they endanger the humans in the narrative, Jesus must subdue. Carter, for example, writes that “walking on the sea is something God does, expressive of God’s sovereignty over the sea and creation. . . In walking on the sea, Jesus does what God does. He manifests God’s presence and demonstrates God’s reign over the sea and all the opposing forces it represents. He removes what impeded the disciples, enabling them to cross the sea” (Carter, p. 310). Carter emphasizes God’s power over the forces of nature and, so here, what will commonly be understood as the supernatural power of one who can “walk on water.”
We would stress Jesus’ calming of creation’s turbulence as a sign of his right relationship with all the forces of creation, . . . the dynamic harmony he knows from his visit to the mountain.
While Carter appropriately notes that Jesus’ “presence is responsible for the calm,” and acknowledges that the episode “is another in a series of references to restoring creation under God’s reign: the notion of rest in Matt 11:28, Sabbath (12:10), the abundant yield (13:8, 23, plentiful food (14:20), [and, alas!] the subdued sea,” the characterization of that presence as effective domination is typical: “For the fifth time in the scene (walking on water, talking as God, extending hand, saving from water, calming the storm), Jesus does a Godlike act, manifesting God’s reign over the sea. The sea is subdued and set in its place as God intended it (Gen 1:6-13)” (Ibid., p. 312; our emphasis). By contrast, we would rather stress his calming of creation’s turbulence as a sign of his right relationship with all the forces of creation, a relationship into which he would draw the disciples, even as he “rescues” them from their alienation from the sea into the dynamic harmony he knows from his visit to the mountain.
Jesus is not the controlling and dominating Savior who willfully alters creation for the sake of his own power.
In the era of climate change into which Earth is entering, it serves the cause of the Lord, the Servant of Creation, better, we are convinced, when we take care to present him as one whose relationship with the Creator serves to inspire a peaceful, cooperative relationship with the creation. He is not the controlling and dominating Savior who willfully alters creation for the sake of his own power or for the power of those who believe in him. Phrases from the Psalm for the day underline this interpretation:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase (85:10-13).
Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores a dynamic harmony to the creation.
The vision of Jesus walking on the sea at first terrified the disciples and then inspired Peter’s own boldly over-confident adventure out over the troubled waters. As such, the story therefore ought not be understood as a legitimation for faith to seek transcendence over nature. On the contrary, it serves to illustrate how faith contributes to the maintenance of the right relationship between human beings and the energies present within the creation. Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores a dynamic harmony to the creation. Let the sea roar: it need not be destructive of faith in the Creator, whose voice is heard in the silence after the storm.