13th August, 2017
Two weeks ago I spoke a little about parables and how Jesus used this particular method of storytelling because parables are often surprising if not shocking. Parables also raise questions and invite us to begin thinking for ourselves. These two characteristics of surprise and invitation make parables highly memorable. This is also true for other methods of storytelling. Just take a moment to think of a favourite novel or movie. Why do you consider it to be a favourite? There may be a warmth to the story, or excitement, but more often than not a story stays with us because it took us on a journey and that journey concluded in a way we did not expect, which is a long hand way of saying a good story is often surprising.
One of the challenges of scripture is that our familiarity with certain stories often undermines their ability to surprise us. This is certainly true of the story of Jesus walking on the water. This particular story is unusual in that it appears in both the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as well as the gospel of John, making it one of only two miracle stories that appear across the four gospels. This is noteworthy because the Gospel of John developed later than the other three gospels and contains very different ideas about Jesus and who he was. The fact that this story is repeated in John, along with the other miracle story of the feeding of the five thousand, it is fair to conclude that of all the material found in the earlier gospels, these two stories about Jesus were of particular importance to the early church.
This is partly why the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan rejects the idea that these miracle stories recount factual history. Crossan suggests that Jesus walking on water, and the feeding of the five thousand are actually parables. But whereas many of the stories that we call parables are the stories remembered as being told by Jesus, these parables were created by the early church about Jesus. Crossan makes a distinction between the parables of Jesus, and parables about Jesus.
Marcus Borg in his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, builds on this idea by agreeing that the story of Jesus walking on the water is a parable about Jesus, which is why it was so loved by the early church. To say that this story is a parable, it to understand the story as metaphorical and therefore open to a broad range of interpretation. I’m sure many of you have thought about this gospel reading and have found meaning within it.
For example, perhaps the message of the story of Jesus Walking on the Water is that without Jesus we are adrift in the dark. Perhaps the meaning is that being a follower of Christ comes with risk and the possibility of being in dangerous situations. Or maybe the meaning is that Jesus comes to us in times of distress, or perhaps that when we are with Christ we have nothing to fear. Those are all metaphorical meanings easily found within the story.
In the particular version of this story that we read this morning there is an additional story, not found in other gospel version. It is the story of Peter who also walks on the water. I always find it curious that we don’t call this the story of Jesus and Peter walking on water, despite the fact that this is what this version tells us. Peter also walks on the sea of galilee, but is overcome by doubt and fear. It is only then that he sinks.
Again Borg suggests that this story was not retained in the bible because it suggests that if we have enough faith we can literally walk across water. Peter’s story is also open to a variety of interpretation. Perhaps this part of the story suggests that without faith in Christ we can be overcome by fear, or that apart from Christ we sink. Or that by trusting in Christ’s call to us we may be able to do remarkable things, or that sometimes if we call out for help, Christ will be there.
My broad point here, is that by understanding this story as metaphorical we are able to access a great variety of meanings. This is a story that will speak to us in different ways at different times in our lives. Sometimes we will be cheered by the message we find, and other times we will be challenged or even upset or confused by the meaning we find. The good news is that by returning to the story, over and over, we will come to appreciate the richness of the story.
I have recently been reading about a Jewish approach to reading scripture. This approach does not rely upon placing the passage in context, or considering the translation, or where the passage occurs in scripture. Those are fairly standard approaches within the Christian tradition. Rather, rabbis often combine a meticulous reading of a passage and combine it with imagination in order to discern something new.
Rabbis do this by reading very slowly and contemplating every word of a passage and each sentence one at a time, hoping to find something that invokes a new or different thought. This is a very good way of overcoming our familiarity with certain passages because it requires us to look deeper. It’s more or less the fine tooth comb method.
When employing this method we become aware of certain words and phrases in the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water, that are often over looked. Three words at the beginning of verse 26b are an example of this. “…they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost.’”
Now admittedly if you saw a person walking across a lake in a storm, you might be surprised, but would you jump to the conclusion that what you were seeing was a ghost? On one hand, perhaps this is a reasonable thing to think given the circumstances, seeing someone walking on water is not an everyday occurrence. But on the other hand, claiming to see a ghost is by no means an everyday experience, even for those who believe in seeing ghosts. Is there any greater significance to the disciples believing that they were seeing a ghost?
One thing we know about the Gospel stories is that while Matthew and Mark follow a similar time line regarding the life of Jesus, the writer of Luke appears to have lacked a clear idea of the geography of Palestine. The evidence for this is that the timeline of events in the Gospel of Luke and the way Jesus seems to cover vast distances in very little time is very different to Matthew and Mark. If Luke is only slightly different to Matthew and Mark, John is extremely different from start to finish. What this tells us, is that while we can come up with a sequence of events that broadly tells the story of Jesus, there is disagreement between the different gospel stories. This gives us an interesting possibility regarding the story of Jesus walking on water.
An exercise I have done with the youth group on occasion is to think of as many stories about Jesus as we can and then to place them in chronological order. Sometimes we do that as a competition by splitting the group in half and having each group come up with a different order of events. Then we can talk about which events we place where on a timeline and how there are similarities and differences, just like the differences we find across the four gospels.
Where we place the story of Jesus walking on water within the greater story of Jesus’ ministry, can change our perception of the story. What if this particular parable is not a story from Jesus’s life, but rather a story that was originally part of the resurrection tradition. What I am suggesting is that it is possible that this story is really part of the Easter story, the time when the followers of Jesus came to believe that Christ had risen from the dead.
If we entertain the possibility that perhaps this story occurs after the crucifixion, suddenly the exclamation of, “It is a ghost,” makes a different kind of sense. If they were seeing Jesus and knew that Jesus was already dead, then fear and bewilderment is a perfectly reasonable reaction. You may not like that idea, but it’s food for thought and a fair question to be asked of the biblical text.
There are many different ways to read and engage with scripture. There are those claiming to be biblical literalists who declare that the bible says what it means and means what it says. There is nothing wrong with that idea. The bible can be interpreted in that way. However, to only use one method of interpretation means that we a limiting the role of scripture in our lives. To restrict ourselves to only one viewpoint on passage of scripture is to deprive ourselves of the riches that can be discovered through metaphorical and creative approaches.
Karen Armstrong summarises this point by suggesting that finding new ways to interpret and engage with scripture is to join with a history of biblical interpretation as old as the bible itself. It is her view that it is this ongoing dynamic engagement with the text that makes it truly holy. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant