According to Matthew, when the bread fragments
had been gathered up into the baskets after the
multiplication, Jesus immediately sends the disciples
off across the Sea of Galilee while he goes alone
into the hills to pray. [St John ends his account
of the multiplication by saying that “Jesus knew
they were going to take him and make him king”.
He may have wanted to get the disciples away from
there before they caught the enthusiasm]. Matthew
mentions Jesus at prayer less often than the other
The Sea of Galilee is almost
four and a half miles wide. Matthew wants us to
know that the disciples and Jesus were widely
separated. The lake is prone to sudden storms.
Time was gauged at night according to watches:
the fourth and last watch was between 3:00 and
6:00 am. This gives an indication of how long
Jesus had been praying and how long the disciples
had been fighting the storm. The Old Testament,
especially in the psalms and the book of Jonah,
speaks of God rescuing those in danger of drowning.
In the Bible the sea is often a symbol of death.
Once again St Matthew’s account is more than merely
a description of what took place. It can best
be understood if we read it with its meaning filled
out from a background of reference to the Old
Jesus has not abandoned the
disciples. He responds to the fear of the disciples:
“It is I” and “Fear not”, terms used by the prophet
Isaiah several times when referring to God, and
here, coupled with walking on water [as God is
said to do in Psalm 107:28], they identify Jesus
as one who does what God does, who reveals God
and has a special relationship with God. Peter
often serves as spokesman for the disciples in
Matthew. He wants to do what God does but his
faith fails him. Here again we find Peter representing
the apostles in their ‘little faith’ (and our
faith as disciples). Even so, although they doubt,
they can still recognize the Son of God.
It is hard to separate the historical
and the symbolic. The heart of the story is Jesus
doing what God does in the Bible, walking on the
water and saving from drowning, and identifying
himself by speaking about himself in the way God
does. What happens to Peter is a call to faith
and courage: Jesus reaches out to those of ‘little
• The fourth watch of the night, from 3 am to
6 am, the time just before dawn, and the longest
hours for those who do not sleep. The disciples
say: “A ghost!” Jesus says: “It is I! Do not
be afraid.” Can I pray for the faith to put
the fears and ‘ghosts’ that ramble through my
head at such an hour into his care?
• The gospels often picture Jesus at prayer
before he makes an important decision. He chooses
to join the disciples dramatically on the water
near the end of their struggle for life. Moses
saved his people by bringing them through the
waters of the Red Sea. Joshua stopped the flow
of the Jordan so that the Israelites could cross
dry-shod into the Promised Land. Jesus walks
on water and challenges the disciples’ faith
(and ours). Does it all, like the water, flow
over my head?
• This event is often interpreted as representing
the Church amidst the storms of the world and
disbelief. Matthew probably intended something
less dramatic, since the Church that he knew
was a small, frail minority subject to persecution.
Is the call to courage on that smaller scale
helpful to me? Do I bow down before Jesus in
reverence, grasp his hand and accept his power,
recognizing like Elijah the prophet in the first
reading, that his strength is ‘in the sound
of a gentle breeze’?
• Even at the Ascension the disciples still
hoped for ‘the restoration of the kingdom’.
It can be easy to become confused between the
demands of political and civil power and those
of God and conscience. How good am I at ‘giving
to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and
to God the things that are God’s’?