Scripture notes – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 13th August 2023

In ordinary life, we mostly have to take in faith of who God is, and may only imagine what it would mean to ‘experience’ Him. At special moments, the veil of human limitation is lifted and someone receives a glimpse of what ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard’. We have two of these moments in the readings today.

The readings are available online here.

1 Kings 19:9, 11-13
This was one such revelatory time in the life of Elijah. The story can stand alone, but for a fuller understanding of how this fits into the life of this early prophet, read the whole chapter 19. A summary: Elijah fled out into the desert, in fear of his life after he had prophesied against King Ahab and his pagan wife Jezebel. He walked 40 days to the mountain where Moses had received his vision of God’s power. Here that is called ‘Horeb’, though ‘Sinai’ is the name more familiar to us. Elijah was discouraged and ready to die but God promised to ‘pass before him’.

In the dramatic experiences of Moses on Sinai (Exodus 19:18-19) God’s presence was shown in powerful and terrifying natural effects: storms, smoking fire and earthquakes. Knowing of those events, Elijah may have expected some of the same. In a literary crescendo, a series of such terrifying events happen but ‘God was not in’ them. Our reading speaks of a Gentle breeze, but the translation does not follow the Hebrew well and it masks mystery in the original words. This are better said to be ‘the sound of tiny silence’ or ‘a sound of sheer silence.’ On the surface this is a contradiction – a sound so gentle it was like silence. This is a paradox that offers a deeper meaning that is hard to express in ordinary words. God’s presence is ‘beyond’ even our imagining and something anyone including Elijah has to receive as best they can. That God does not fit logical categories but is a deeper and more ‘real reality’ is something the Bible often struggles to find words to explain. Elijah covers his face in reverence as he understands that God is present to him in this strange moment of ‘the sound of silence’. In the verses after our reading, God gives Elijah a new prophetic role. Revelations can inspire personal devotion, but also strengthen one to care for others.

Psalm 84/85:9-14
The psalm today is not as closely related to the first reading as usual. It is, however, a good presentation of the Hebrew concept of what God is in the world and how God is found in the ordinary conditions of life.

Romans 9:1-5
We have finished Chapter 8 of this Letter in which St Paul has described, almost mystically, our relationship to God, Jesus and the Spirit. Now he turns to two issues that concern him to the depths of his being – how God deals with what were the two communities from which the early church was formed. Today we have his feelings on the Jews, and next week it will be the Gentiles. As a converted Jew himself, Paul has the desire – expressed in words of great emotion – that his fellow Hebrews will also embrace Christ. Later he will make clear that he still hopes for their ultimate union with Christ.

Despite this Letter being part of Christian scripture, the long history of the church has shown that instead of feeling such pain and desire for the salvation of the Jews, many Christians have instead persecuted them. The Second Vatican Council in the document, Nostrae Aetate, called for dialog with Jews. Working with those of other faith traditions is one challenge for our times.

Matthew 14:22-33
This is the first time Matthew writes of Jesus going off alone to pray, although Luke does so frequently. Our translation says he went ‘into the hills’ but the Greek is ‘to the mountain’ but with no mountain named. In this gospel, a mountain top is a favoured location for significant moments.

It is said that storms can rise suddenly on the Sea of Galilee and that seems the case now, where the disciples – who would have been used to sailing at night as that is a good time for fishing – are caught out by the unexpected storm. The fourth watch in Roman calculation was between 3 and 6 am. They were already frightened by the apparent danger, but even more so when they think they see a ghost.

Commentators cite various Old Testament passages that show God in control of the seas (such as Psalm 77:19, Job 9:8, and 38:16, Isaiah 43:16, and Sirach 24:5-6) so Jesus ability to cross the water may hint at him showing divine power. The words he speaks to the frightened disciples are translated in our reading as ‘It is I,’ but the Greek allows for ambiguity. It is literally ‘I am’ and that could be simply an identification equivalent to our saying ‘It’s me’. ‘I AM’ however is the self-designation of God in the Old Testament. Matthew may be hinting here that Jesus’ saying I AM was a revelation of divine power, as often in John’s Gospel.

Mark’s account of this incident says that Jesus ‘meant to pass by them’ which subtly links this to the experience of Elijah when God ‘passed by him’ in a revelation. Perhaps Matthew feels the words would be misread by those less familiar with the Hebrew, and taken to mean that Jesus was uncaring of the disciples’ predicament.

There are some clues that Matthew is treating this as an allegory, or symbol for the church of his own time. The boat being ‘tormented’ is not sailing language, but hints at the trials and persecutions that came to the early Christian community. The action of Peter also highlights the experience of those who start out confidently to follow Jesus, but lose trust and ‘sink’ beneath the difficulties.

Peter first shows the sudden boldness and confidence we often see in the gospels. He steps out toward Jesus, but his faith fails – his weakness is something else the gospels do not hesitate to show. ‘You of little faith’ is a favourite expression of Matthew, which contrasts with, however, those of ‘no faith’. The ‘little faiths’ are disciples with good intentions but failing at a crisis. They have some faith but fall short of complete trust.

After this, they seem to grow in faith for they understand that Jesus is the Son of God for they kneel to worship him right there in the boat.

Joan Griffith
Originally published for 9th August 2020
Republished with her family’s permission