Year A – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Troubled Waters

(1Kgs.19:9a,11-13a; Rom.9:1-5; Mt.14:22-33)

Some people love the sea. It reminds them of sunshine, surf and swimming.  For others, the sea is the great unknown, filled with shipwrecks and sharks. 

In 1823 the English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, ‘I hate to be near the sea … to hear it roaring and raging like a wild beast in its den …’

The people of ancient Israel disliked the sea, too.  They thought it was full of danger and nasty surprises – calm one moment, but fierce the next.  They were sure that monstrous ghosts and whales lurked below.  

Scripture had taught them that on the second day of Creation, God established dry land by separating the seas (Gen.1:9).  They also knew that God had helped the Israelites escape Egypt by parting the Red Sea (Ex.14:21-31).  So they were convinced that only God can control the sea’s frightening power.

In Matthew’s Gospel today, after feeding the 5,000, Jesus tells his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee while he goes into the hills to pray.

Now, the Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake surrounded by steep hills.  It’s usually calm, but violent storms do suddenly occur, especially when the cool mountain air meets the hot air above the lake.  One storm in 1992 produced waves 3m high.

It’s night-time when the disciples’ boat crosses that sea, and a wild windstorm whips up the waves.  They become terrified, especially when they notice someone walking towards them on the water.  ‘It must be a ghost!’ they cry.  But Jesus says, ‘It is I. Don’t be afraid’.

They’re astounded.  How can Jesus do that?  Only God can control the sea.

Jesus then invites Peter to join him.  Peter is mesmerised, and steps out of the boat, walking towards Jesus.  He’s not afraid; his faith sustains him.  But suddenly the wind distracts Peter and he looks away from Jesus. He panics and starts to sink.  ‘Lord, save me!’ he cries, and Jesus reaches out to grab him.  ‘Oh man of little faith,’ Jesus says, ‘why did you doubt?’ 

As Jesus steps into the boat, the storm disappears.

This story is a wonderful metaphor for our lives.  We do like peace and calm, don’t we? But we’re so often battered by unwelcome storms.

In one sense, that little boat represents the Church, the Barque of Peter, which has certainly been buffeted by turbulent headwinds in recent times. 

Jesus is inviting us all to stay calm, to remain with the Church and to keep our eyes firmly fixed on him.  He will guide us through this passing storm.

But that little boat also represents our own selves, as we try to cross the troubled seas of our individual lives.  Like the disciples, we often worry about the dangers around us and whether we can cope on our own. 

But we don’t have to cope on our own! Jesus is in control. He wants to help us.

Just as God’s spirit hovered over the waters at the time of Creation, so Jesus is hovering over our troubled world right now.  He’s inviting us to rise above the chaos and to walk with him.  He doesn’t promise that there’ll be no more storms, but he is offering to hold our hand to guide us through.

When times are tough, this is our choice:  Do we look inwardly in fear?  Or do we focus on Jesus and draw strength from him?

Peter, the disciple, could walk on water because his eyes were squarely fixed on Jesus.  But as soon as he looked away, he started to sink. It’s the same with us.

It’s not enough for us to say we have faith.  We actually need to live by our faith. 

The French Jesuit writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), explains what this means in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. To live by faith, he says, is to live joyfully, to live with assurance, untroubled by doubts and with complete confidence in all we have to do and suffer at each moment by the will of God.

So, we must trust Jesus.  But why must we suffer all these storms?

We must realize, de Caussade says, that in order to stimulate and sustain this faith, God allows the soul to be buffeted and swept away by the raging torrent of so much distress, so many troubles, so much embarrassment and weakness, and so many setbacks … [i]

In other words, if we never suffered stormy seas, we’d have no reason to find God.  We would simply rely on ourselves.

So, today, are you in calm seas or troubled waters?

Whatever your answer, always keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.

We surely need him.

[i] Jean-Pierre de Caussade Abandonment to Divine Providence, Cosimo Classics, New York, 2007:281-285.

Year A – 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On Two Drops of Oil

(Isa.55:1-3; Rom.8:35, 37-39; Mt.14:13-21)

In his bestselling book, The Alchemist, Paolo Coelho tells the story of a boy sent by his father to learn the secret of happiness.  He travels to a castle, high atop a mountain, to see the wisest man in the world.

The wise man is busy, however.  He says he doesn’t have the time to share the secret of happiness, but he encourages the boy to explore the palace and return in two hours. He then hands the boy a teaspoon holding two drops of oil, saying, ‘As you walk around, carry this spoon with you without spilling any oil.’

The boy wanders all around the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returns to the wise man.

‘Well,’ asks the wise man, ‘did you see the Persian tapestries or the garden? Did you notice the beautiful parchments in my library?’

The boy is embarrassed; he saw nothing. He was too busy minding the oil.

‘Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,’ says the wise man. ‘You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.’

The boy takes the spoon and again explores the palace, this time observing all the fine artworks and the beautiful gardens, mountains and flowers. Returning to the wise man, he explains all he has seen.

‘But where are the drops of oil?’ the wise man asks.

The boy looks down at the empty spoon.

‘Well, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you,’ says the wisest of wise men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.’ [i]

It was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who famously said that we are spiritual beings having a human experience.  Coelho’s story reminds us that we often lose sight of our spiritual selves in the busyness of our daily lives.  We get so caught up in our worldly pursuits that we forget what really matters in life. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes with his disciples to a quiet place to pray and to mourn the death of his cousin John the Baptist, however a huge crowd appears.  The disciples are annoyed, but Jesus responds with compassion.

Now, many people today are quick to dismiss the Feeding of the 5,000 as yet another nice thing Jesus did.  But it’s so much more than that.  

This is a miracle so filled with mystery and symbol that it appears six times in Scripture and it’s in all four Gospels.  It’s full of allusions to the Old Testament, and it points to the fulfilment of ancient prophecy (Is.25:6-8; 40:10-11).

This event presents Jesus as the new Moses (Ex.16:1-36) and as the Son of David who leads his flock to green pastures (Ps.23).  And like the prophet Elisha, he feeds his flock with only a few loaves, but has plenty left over (2Kgs.4:42-44).  

Now, it’s significant that Jesus begins with 7 items of food (5 loaves and 2 fish), because in Scripture the number 7 symbolises completion or perfection.  It also points to the 7 days of Creation and the fact that everything begins with God.

And it’s significant that the gestures and words Jesus uses are the same he uses at the Last Supper when he institutes the Eucharist: He ‘takes the bread… he blesses it… he breaks it and he gives it to them’ (Mt.26:26). 

Jesus instructs his 12 Apostles to distribute this food, and the 12 baskets left over indicate that there’s still plenty of his Eucharistic bread available for all 12 tribes of Israel. Indeed, through the Apostles and their successors, Jesus has been nourishing the world with the Bread of Life – his divine self – ever since.

Too many of us today live only on the surface of things. We rarely plumb the depths of who we are and we ignore the movement of God in our lives.  Not surprisingly, we struggle to recognise the fundamental truth, beauty and meaning of life.

The secret of happiness, the wisest of wise men says, is to see all the marvels of the world, without forgetting the two drops of oil on the spoon.

In other words, we need to start seeing beyond the superficial (1Sam.16:7), by maintaining a constant balance between our spiritual and human selves. We need to develop spiritual insight.

Spirituality is wisdom of the spirit; it provides a kind of sixth sense which helps us to intuitively see and appreciate the movement of God in our ordinary human lives. [ii]

How might we achieve that? 

By cultivating a life of prayer and meditation. 

[i] Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist. HarperOne, NY. 1998:30-32 (adapted). 

[ii] Dom Hubert van Zeller, And So to God, published on Universalis, 28 July 2020.