Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, August 9, 2020
A prophet is running for his life from a vengeful pagan queen. He comes to the mountain where, many generations earlier, God had favored Moses with a powerful apparition. The hounded prophet gets a different kind of sign.
Saint Paul begins to work out the question of how the Jews, always God's chosen people, could apparently forfeit their chosen status by rejecting Jesus as the Christ.
To the ancients, the sea was the element last and least yielding to the sovereignty of God.
The Theological Background: Jesus' walking on the water is more than a great theatrical stunt. It's an assertion of his divinity by asserting his mastery over the sea. In ancient times, people perceived the sea as an unruly, menacing presence surrounding (sometimes in three dimensions!) the isolated, relatively small, safer place where they lived and where their gods held sway. Even in ancient Israel, the creation story in Genesis 1 depicts God bringing order out of a pre-existing chaos, separating from the sea the dry land fit for God's human creatures. This is recapitulated when God liberates the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, recreating the people of the covenant, by parting the Red Sea for their passage, and causing the water to flow back and drown their pursuers. Even in our own day, we're amazed and horrified at some of the creatures Jacques Costeau retrieved from the deep, and we're plunged into mourning when the sea claims the lives of beloved public figures. Our liturgy captures this mystery, of God producing life from murky, deadly depths, when we immerse new Christians and bring them forth from the waters of baptism.
All this contributes to the significance of Jesus' walking on the water. He thus manifests God's power over a realm that had been more or less exempt from it. It's a statement that, in Jesus, God's saving work of creation becomes more complete.
A Homiletic Reflection: There's a personal note, too, in the passage. The evangelists often wanted their future readers to identify with certain gospel characters. Here we're reminded, in the anecdote about Peter, that if we simply heed Our Lord, we can do great things. When we start to worry, shifting focus from Jesus to ourselves, we sink.
The Historical Situation: The prophet Elijah [pronounced: "e LI juh", with long e and long i] was on the lam. While doing the work of God, he had angered queen Jezebel, who sent murderous henchmen after him (read the whole fascinating story in 1 Kings, chapters 17-19; imagine Anthony Quinn playing Elijah in the movie). Elijah had been traveling forty days and nights; he finally reached the mountain where God had earlier established the covenant with Israel under Moses. Elijah may have wanted a spectacular miracle to protect and vindicate himself, or an appearance of God with great power, to bolster his faith, such as Moses had enjoyed on this very spot (Exodus 19:16-19).
However, the presence of God was NOT in the spectacles of thunder, fire or earthquake, but in the gentlest whispering sound. Elijah acknowledges that by covering his face, and he was content with it.
Proclaiming It: As lector, make sure the congregation understands that God was absent from the most likely phenomena, and present where least expected. Emphasize the sentences "God was not in the ..." Then lower your voice to a near whisper when you describe where God was present.
The Theological Background: In Romans, chapters 9-11, Paul speculates on how the Jews, always God's chosen people, could apparently forfeit their chosen status by failing to accept Jesus. Since we don't get to read the whole passage, let me summarize it. God's plan calls for the Jews to reject Jesus so that a few believers, like Paul, would be forced to carry the good news outside Judaism and evangelize the Gentiles. When Gentiles are converted, the Jews will be impressed, not to mention jealous, and accept Christ themselves. The result will be the salvation of the whole world and the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles, goods even greater than the election of Israel. The ancient promise of God to Abraham will not go unfulfilled. (Next Sunday's second reading, Roman's 11:13-15, 29-32, gives the kernel of Paul's argument. And the following Sunday's second reading, Romans 11:33-36, has Paul exclaiming that famous passage about God's inscrutable judgments, as he finishes his analysis of God's startling plan.)
(Sometimes people tell me they've interpreted a Bible passage to predict the imminent end of the world or return of Jesus in glory. I always ask if they've noticed Jews becoming envious of Gentile Christians and therefore converting to Christ. After all, Romans 9-11 predicts that more clearly than any passage predicts the end of the world. In other words, keep saving for your retirement until you notice a lot of Jews in your parish's Rites of Christian Initiation.)
Proclaiming It: All that said, how are you to proclaim this passage? Make sure your hearers know that it's the Jews that Paul is concerned about. Emphasize the words "for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites..."Unless you already use the short introductions to the readings for the congregation, above, talk this over with your assembly's preacher, and give your listeners the benefit of this explanation before the reading:
|In this reading Saint Paul begins to work out the question of how the Jews, always God's chosen people, could apparently forfeit their chosen status by rejecting Christ.|
There's one more subtlety you should observe in your proclamation, at the very end. Paul says that from the Jews came Christ, who is God who is blessed forever. (Usually in Saint Paul's writing "God" means the Father, and "Christ" is the title of Jesus the Son of the Father. But here the apostle clearly assigns the title "God" to Christ.) All three expressions are, you may remember from high school English, in apposition: "the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever."
Extra: Our Sunday-by-Sunday selections from Romans have been short and rather discontinuous. Today's passage begins a three-week series of connected paragraphs on a new subject. Click here for a survey of all our selections from Romans from the 9th to the 24th Sundays of Ordinary Time, year A.
Christ Walking on the Water by the Master of Cabestany, circa 1150. Click here for basic information about the work from the venerable Web Gallery of Art. See the thumbnail image there and click it to view a larger version. Notice Peter has a foot on the gunwale already.
For more about the work, Click here to visit the museum that now houses the work. The museum is in Barcelona, which is in Catalonia. The artwork originally graced a monastery in the same region.
This page updated June 21, 2020