Aug 9, 2020: 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The 19th chapter of 1st Kings is the story of Elijah, who was a prophet during the reign of King Ahab (869-850 BC). Ahab was married to Jezebel, who worshipped Baal. Ahab also worshipped Baal and even erected an altar to Baal.

Today’s reading joins Elijah as he is fleeing for his life after destroying the prophets of Baal.

At the mountain of God, Horeb,

Because of their majestic appearances, mountains were considered sacred places by many ancient peoples. Their peaks were the closest points to the heavens, and for this reason, the highest mountain was believed to be the dwelling place of the deity and the logical place for offering sacrifice.

It was fitting that Elijah, whose mission it was to reestablish the covenant and restore the pure faith, should have returned to Horeb, where the covenant was revealed to Moses and through him to the Israelite people (Exodus 3:1-4, 3:17, 33:18-34:9).

Recall that Moses and Elijah appeared on a mountain with Christ at the time of his transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9).

Elijah came to a cave, where he took shelter. Then the LORD said, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”

Elijah has retreated into a cave, but God calls him from his place of shelter and darkness to stand “before the Lord,” out in the open.

Unlike Moses, who actually asked for a glimpse of God (Exodus 33:18), Elijah received the revelation at God’s initiative.

A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire—but the LORD was not in the fire.

In Israelite tradition, a theophany of God is often accompanied by spectacular meteorological phenomena, as it is here. Such an impressive display of nature was not unique to Israel’s worldview: the Canaanites believed their own weather god Baal was manifested in precisely the same way. In fact, it’s possible that the Israelite storytellers related the event of the establishment of the covenant in this way in order to show that it was their God and not the god of the Canaanites who was announced with such fanfare and who governed the powers of nature.

After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. 

Though mighty natural marvels herald the divine presence, they do not constitute the presence itself which, like the tiny whispering sound (qôl), is imperceptible and bespeaks the spirituality of God.

There is a correlation here with our gospel reading: like the disciples on the storm-tossed sea, Elijah is in a time of need and has difficulty recognizing the Lord as he passes by.

When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Gripped with the realization that God was present, Elijah covered his face in an act of reverence and stood at the entrance of the cave.

This was not an experience of oral revelation; no divine words were spoken.  The whisper itself was the experience. When Moses had asked to see the glory of God, he was told that he would not be able to look upon God’s face. He would only be granted a glimpse of the back of this glory after it had passed by. Here Elijah was also granted limited revelation: a wordless voice.

Usually the small and insignificant events of life are the stage upon which the revelation of God is enacted. It is easy to be awed by the spectacular and overlook the ordinary. Yet most lives are made up of the ordinary, and it is there that the “tiny whispering voice” of God will be heard — if we are attuned to it.

2nd Reading – Romans 9:1-5

Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Continuing our study of the book of Romans, Saint Paul now laments over the unbelief of his own people. The Jews — those with whom Paul had worshiped before his conversion — have failed to recognize the Messiah.

Like Elijah in our first reading, Paul is in great distress.

I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie; my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness

The seriousness of the message Paul declares is evident this threefold proclamation: I speak the truth; I do not lie; the Spirit testifies to the witness of my conscience.

He is swearing an oath. He has no resentment against Jews who may have caused him trouble or charged him with disloyalty.

that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.

He is saddened at the condition of his fellow kinsmen. Although Paul turned from proclaiming the gospel to the Jewish people and devoted himself to the conversion of the Gentiles, he never ceased loving the people from whom he came. It is this very love that causes him such anguish because his own people have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah that God first promised and then sent them.

Note that Paul’s reaction is not one of anger, but of heart-broken sorrow.

“Since it appears that earlier he was speaking against the Jews, who thought that they were justified by the law, Paul now shows his desire and love for them and says that his conscience bears witness in Christ Jesus and in the Holy Spirit.” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles Romans 9,2]

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh.

The depth of Paul’s distress can be seen in the radical solution he proposes.  He is willing to be cursed (anáthema) and then cut off from Christ for their sake.

We read just last week that Paul believed nothing could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. While his sentiment here is genuine, the intensity of his love prompts him to propose something that should not be taken literally. He is echoing Moses’ prayer for the unruly Israelites after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32:32), that they may be forgiven. Moses had offered himself as a king of vicarious sacrifice, and it is in this light that Paul’s proposition should be understood.

“Why be surprised that the apostle desires to be cursed for his brethren’s sake, when he who is in the form of God emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant and was made a curse for us (see Philippians 2:6-8)? Why be surprised if, when Christ became a curse for His servants, one of His servants should become a curse for his brethren?” [Origen (post A.D. 244), Commentaries on Romans]

They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs,

After declaring his own attachment to the Jewish people, Paul proceeds to list seven prerogatives they enjoy as the chosen people of God.

Instead of the common political title “Jews,” Paul makes use of their honorific religious title, “Israelites,” which was bestowed by Yahweh himself on his people (Genesis 32:28) and identifies them as descendants of Jacob/Israel.

1) “Adoption” — In a very special sense, the Israelites are the children of God. Although nowhere else are they referred to as “adopted,” they do enjoy the designation “firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). The whole Bible is full of this idea.

2) “Glory” — The extraordinary way God’s holiness was manifested to Israel. Again and again in the history of Israel, the Scriptures mention the shekinah, God’s splendor of light which appeared when God was with his people in a special way. It appeared in the cloud that led them through the wilderness (Exodus 16:19), and it settled in the Temple (1 Kings 8:11). This glory indicated that God was present with the people in a very special way.

3) “Covenants” — The special pacts made with the patriarchs which sealed the relationship of mutual friendship between God and his people (Genesis 15:18; Genesis 17:2; Exodus 19:5; Exodus 24:7-8; Sirach 44:12, 18; Psalm 89:3-4).

4) “Giving of the Law” — The Israelites were entrusted with the sacred Law, or Torah, the expression of God’s will given to Moses (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-22).

5) “Worship” — They were also given precepts of divine worship (Leviticus 17 – 26), so different from the idolatrous worship of Israel’s neighbors, which often included prostitution and human sacrifice.

6) “Promises” — The promises made to Abraham (Genesis 12:12; 21:12), Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18-19), and David (2 Samuel 7:11-16), whereby they knew from God that they could, if faithful, be destined for greatness.

7) “Patriarchs” — Israel’s ancestors, who gave them a tradition, a history, and a heritage. Israel still worships the God of its fathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Romans 11:28).

and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ,

To this summary of Israel’s seven historic privileges, Saint Paul adds an eighth, the climax, the culmination of all the privileges: “Messiah” — the descendent par excellence. The fact that the savior of all mankind is from the Israelite nation is their greatest title to glory, but he is not recognized as such.

Everything else had been a preparation for the coming of this Anointed One of God, and yet they rejected him. This is the source of Paul’s anguish.

who is over all,

Though the Jewish people do not realize Christ’s true identity, Paul has complete faith in the divinity of Christ, who has sovereignty over all.

God blessed forever. Amen.

This last phrase is obscure. It can be an acclamation of God, who is blessed forever, or its juxtaposition with a description of Christ would suggest Paul is actually calling Christ “God.” If the first interpretation is the correct one, the Greek construction is quite awkward. The second version fits both the Greek construction and the sense of Paul’s argument. In other words, from the Jewish people came Christ, who is sovereign over all and who is God, blessed forever.

Gospel – Matthew 14:22-23

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”

This week’s reading is the famous story of Jesus walking on water, which occurs immediately after last week’s feeding of the five thousand.

After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

Jesus directs his apostles to travel by boat ahead of them “to the other side,” i.e., crossing to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Genesareth). This would have them entering Gentile territory.

After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.

Jesus’ solitary nocturnal prayer is a model for all Christians. Besides prayer in common, we also need time for personal prayer.

Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, 

The previous New American translation was “several hundred yards offshore.” Mark says the boat was in the middle of the sea. Matthew actually says “many stadia,” and a stadia is about 200 yards.

was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.

Lake Genesareth is well known even today for the sudden and violent storms that arise on it.

During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea.

According to the Roman military, the night was divided into four watches of three hours each, which means this episode occurred sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.

This story is linked to both Canaanite myth and the Old Testament, in which the Lord overcomes the waves of death (Psalm 79:19; Job 9:8; 38:16; Isaiah 43:16; Sirach 24:5-6).

When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.

What the disciples saw was a physical impossibility, so they mistook Jesus for a ghost (phantasm) and cried out in fear.

Note that in Mark (6:45-52), the wind stops and the disciples are astonished. Here in Matthew’s account, the disciples are still without understanding.

At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus’ response was the typical response to fear in the face of an experience of the divine: Do not be afraid!

To this he adds the theophanic statement: “it is I,” or literally, “I AM” (egō eimi), an allusion to the story of Moses and the burning bush when God reveals God’s name as “I AM.”

Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 

Peter, as leader of the apostles, sets the example.

Note the “if” in Peter’s statement: he is not sure.

He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Peter accepts Jesus’ invitation to come, and he begins to walk on the water.  His faith upholds him. However, his faith is not strong enough to overcome his fear of the chaotic waters, and so he sinks.

Peter represents the boldness of faith and the destructiveness of doubt. As long as he has faith, he is able to do as Jesus did. But when he focuses on the difficulties that beset him, he falters.

Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, 

Ultimately, Peter’s faith wins out. He cries out to Jesus, knowing that he has the power to save him, and he does just that.

and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Note that Jesus chides Peter not for having no faith at all, but for having little faith. Peter had enough faith to believe that Jesus could do the miracle, but not enough faith that Jesus would do it for him.

After they got into the boat, the wind died down.

In the ancient Near East, water was cherished because of its importance for sustaining life, but it was also feared because of the devastation wrought by the overflow of unruly lakes and rivers. For this reason, it became an apt symbol for chaos. Several creation myths recount how a valiant warrior-god battled the forces of cosmic chaos and emerged victorious. Although chaos was never quite destroyed, it was held in check by this mighty god. To portray Jesus walking on the chaotic water as a stouthearted conqueror was to cast in him the guise of this creator-god, who alone governed the waters.

Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

All the theophanic elements of the story have come together: Jesus walks over chaotic water, he responds with the standard expression to the kind of fear brought on by an experience of the divine, he saves Peter, and although the text does not say that Jesus calmed the wind, it does subside when he gets into the boat.

The entire event is a manifestation of the extraordinary power that resides in Jesus. Accordingly, Matthew records the first time in the synoptic gospels that anyone — here, everyone in the boat — called Jesus “the Son of God.”

We need only to recognize and accept his divinity for him to save us as well. Salvation is offered. Jesus says, “Come.” Will we respond with faith?

Connections and Themes

The whispering sound.  The first theme repeats the major theme of last Sunday. Although divine power is manifested in dramatic ways, it is also present in the unassuming. Traces of God can be seen in the delicateness of a violet, in a cool summer breeze, in the blush of innocence, in the fiery eyes of justice. Every one of us lives in the midst of God, breathes the breath of God’s life, and is constantly touched by the exquisite artistry of God’s creativity. Life itself is a mountain experience of God.

Subdue chaos. As wonderful as life is, it can also be frightening. There may well be order in the natural processes of creation, but many times human beings are unaware of that order, or for any number of reasons, do not live in harmony with it. What results can only be described as chaos. In addition to this, misunderstanding and rancor, jealousy and vindictiveness, greed and hunger for power, are but a few of the causes of social discord. Finally, our personal lives themselves can come unraveled, and we can feel that we are genuinely “at sea.” Every human being is tossed about by the exigencies of life.

It is at times like these that we need faith in Jesus. Even though we do not recognize him, he is there in the midst of our chaos. Having the power of God, he is the definitive champion of all chaos, and so he is able to allay our fears and calm the sea. In so many ways he has already shown us the love he has for us, so why do we doubt? Why do we hesitate? Perhaps it is because we are so used to depending upon ourselves. In this regard, the gospel underscores a very important point: It is not enough to acknowledge Jesus or even to step into danger for his sake. We are able to do this only if we have faith in the power that comes from him. If we rely solely on our own devices, we are liable to sink even deeper into chaos.

Concern for others. Since the general context of the readings for Ordinary Time is the character and responsibilities of discipleship, it is appropriate to use this context to show the relationship between the disciple’s experience of God and the implication of this experience for discipleship itself — what has been given must now be shared. We find this sharing exemplified in the reading from Paul, who was willing to offer himself in exchange for God’s graciousness toward Paul’s own people.

A true experience of God, whether it be in the ordinariness of life or in one of life’s tribulations, is both transformative and effusive. It affects us in a way similar to the way we are affected when we hear about the birth of a child or the end of a war — this is news that cannot be contained; it must be proclaimed.