“Every action of Christ is for our instruction.” These words of St. Thomas Aquinas disclose his conviction that Jesus’ instructions are not just what He said but also what He did in the Gospels.
According to St. Thomas, this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14: 22-33) is especially packed with lessons. This passage describes the experience of the Jesus’ disciples when they are caught on the sea at night during a storm.
Why did Jesus allow them to experience the storm? Matthew tells us: “Jesus insisted that the disciples get into the boat and precede Him to the other side” (Mt 14:22). It is not just a coincidence that the disciples find themselves in a storm. Jesus intends that this experience will be an important lesson.
The storm represents the future difficulties His disciples will face, as St. Thomas explains: “Those willing to comply with God’s will are frequently exposed to dangers” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew).
On the preceding day, Jesus had fed over five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish. Yet when the scraps of food were collected, “Jesus dismissed the multitude” (Mt 14:23).
Thomas finds a lesson even in this dismissal: “So that He might teach us to avoid vainglory; after having performed the miracle, He withdrew: ‘I seek not My own glory’ (Jn 8:50). Likewise, it was so that He might show the virtue of discretion: for it belongs to discretion to withdraw oneself and to rest” (Commentary on Matthew).
Matthew informs us, “He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When it was evening, He was there alone” (Mt 14:23).
Thomas affirms that, “He had come to plant our faith.” For this reason, at times Jesus does divine things, such as multiplying the loaves, and at times, He does human things, such as prayer:
“He prayed, that is proper to men, and this was not because He needed to pray, but to give an example: for every action of Christ is for our instruction. ‘For I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also’ (Jn 13:15)” (Commentary on Matthew).
Jesus teaches us how to pray, as Thomas notes: “He gives us an example how to pray, and He shows that peace of soul, raising of the mind, and solitude are required for prayer” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas maintains that the multitude of people who were dismissed by Jesus represent the multitude of “disturbing thoughts” that come when we try to pray: “Peace of soul is indicated because it is said, ‘and having dismissed the multitude,’ which denotes disturbing thoughts with which a man cannot pray, and, for that reason, He teaches us to close the door of our heart; ‘But you when you pray, enter into your room ….(Mt 6:6)” (Commentary on Matthew).
While prayer with the community is essential for Christians, silent prayer alone is also necessary: “Raising the mind is indicated: ‘Let him sit alone in silence …’ (Lamentations 3:28). Similarly, solitude is indicated, ‘I will lead her into the wilderness and I will speak to her heart’ (Hos 2:14)” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas draws a connection between Jesus’ going up the mountain to pray and Jesus ascending to the Father as our intercessor, “By the mountain, heaven is understood … … He ascended into heaven to pray: ‘He is able to save for ever those who come to God by Him; always living to make intercession for us’ (Heb 7:25)” (Commentary on Matthew).
The Gospel tells us: “Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it” (Mt 14:24).
Many contemporary Biblical scholars would agree with Thomas, that the storm-tossed boat represents the Church: “By the boat, the Church is signified; and by the sea, the world is signified … And this Church, when Christ went into it, remained in the sea, and in the world’s dangers. For when some great man attacks the Church then it is agitated by the waves. ‘All Your waves You have brought upon Me’ (Psalm 8:8)’” (Commentary on Matthew). We may think of those places where Christians are being persecuted in our times.
Christ’ presence with the Church assures its survival: “But because Christ prays, it cannot be submerged, even though it toss and be lifted up… Likewise, it is agitated by the wind: and this wind is an assault instigated by the devil” (Commentary on Matthew).
Matthew relates: “He came to them, walking on the sea” (Mt 14:25).
Thomas asks, “Why did He wish to come in this way? It was to show that He is the Lord of the sea … This means that the Church can only withstand tribulations according to what He wills” (Commentary on Matthew).
The disciples think that Jesus is a ghost: “When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea they were terrified” (Mt 14:26).
Thomas explains that God sometimes allows things to become worse so that we may appreciate His help the more: “You ought to know that when divine assistance is closer at hand, the Lord permits men to be more afflicted, so that then His assistance may be received with more devotion and thanksgiving. Likewise, then fear grows more because men are frequently converted through fear” (Commentary on Matthew).
Matthew tells us: “Immediately, Jesus spoke to them” (Mt 14:27).
Thomas comments: “When someone cries to the Lord, if it is necessary, He comes immediately: ‘As soon as He hears, He will answer you’ (Is 30:19). Because they were despairing, He says to them, ‘Fear not.’ It is stated in John’s Gospel: ‘In the world you shall have distress. But have confidence, I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:33): that is to say, in Me, you will find rest. Because they thought that He was an apparition, He says, ‘It is I.’ Why does He speak in this manner? It is because they were assured by His manner of speaking: ‘My sheep hear My voice’ (Jn 10:3)’ (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas compares Jesus’ announcement, “It is I,” with God’s revelation to Moses, “I am who Am”: “Moreover, it was so that He might show that He is God. Something similar is stated in Exodus 3:13: ‘He who is has sent Me to you,’ said Moses” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas attributes Peter’s request to walk across the water to his desire to be with Jesus: “Because He had given assistance by His words, for that reason Peter asks for a sign in His actions… ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Because of His faith, which he had already conceived, he boldly trusts in His power… He said this solely out of his desire to come to Him, and not to tempt Him, nor out of disbelief” (Commentary on Matthew).
Matthew records: “Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he perceived how strong the wind was, becoming frightened, he began to sink” (Mt 14:29-30).
Thomas asks why Jesus permitted him to be in danger? He reflects:
“He commanded him to go upon the sea, so that His power might be shown, because both were walking upon the sea… That He permitted Peter to sink was done so that Peer might experience what he could do of himself. That Peter walked upon the sea was by Christ’s power; that he began to sink, on the other hand, was owing to Peter’s weakness, just as Paul says, ‘Lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan to buffet me’ (2 Cor 12:7)” (Commentary on Matthew).
Matthew states: “Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter” (Mt 14:31).
Thomas believes that Peter especially needed to experience his own weakness as well as Jesus help because of his future role in the Church: “The Lord also permitted Peter to sink because he was to be the pastor. Therefore He wished to show him his power and weakness” (Commentary on Matthew). A self-assured minister of the Gospel can hardly teach others to trust in Jesus.
Jesus challenges Peter to be firm in faith, as Thomas reflects: “Christ does two things, namely, that He gives assistance because He stretches out His hand … Next, He rebukes him concerning his disbelief” (Commentary on Matthew).
Matthew declares: “Those who were in the boat did Him homage, saying, "Truly, You are the Son of God" (Mt 14:33).
Thomas instructs us: “When the Lord is with the faithful, then they truly believe: ‘And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He shall appear we may have confidence and not be confounded by Him in His coming’ (1 Jn 2:28)” (Commentary on Matthew).
In our own lives, we have encountered both difficulties and Jesus’ presence and help. He calls us as well to be more firm in faith. Through relying on Jesus in our struggles, we grow closer to Him.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew are taken from the translation of Fr. Paul M. Kimball, published by Dolorosa Press in 2012, pp. 521-527.