When we falter, Jesus always reaches out to save us

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Readings: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13 Romans 9:1-5 Matthew 14:22-33

Father John A. Kiley

This Sunday’s readings present two men, Elihan and Peter, who find themselves in danger because of their efforts to follow God's will.

In fear, both reach out for God’s saving help. Let us pray with them in the words of the responsorial psalm: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation” (Ps 85).

In the reading from 1 Kings, Elijah is fleeing from the wicked queen Jezebel, who has put him under a death sentence for defeating and slaughtering her prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (see 1 Kings 18:1-19:3). Filled with despair at his apparent failure, Elijah escapes into the desert, where he is ready to die like his forefathers who came out of Egypt and wandered for 40 years.

He goes to sleep under a broom tree, as he prays for death: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

But God has a life-giving mission for the prophet. Just as the Lord provided his ancestors water and manna in the wilderness (Exodus 15-17), he sustains Elijah with a hearth cake and jug of water so that he can journey 40 days and nights to the mountain of God. There, like the frightened Moses before him, Elijah encounters the Lord, but the Lord is not present in the spectacular and powerful manifestations traditionally associated with the mountain. Rather, Elijah hears God’s message in a “tiny whispering sound” that tells him he is not alone in his struggle and he must return to his people (1 Kgs 19:13-18).

For the next three weeks, in the second reading from Romans, Paul will be struggling with the question of the place of his people, the Jews, in God’s plan for salvation. Paul is saddened and perplexed by the fact that his brethren, the Jews, did not as a whole embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Using the language of a solemn oath, Paul begins by expressing his grief and pain over his people’s apparent separation from the Messiah:

I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience joins the Holy Spirit in bearing witness that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

Paul goes on to praise God in a blessing for all the privileges that the Jewish people have in the plan for salvation:

They are the Israelites, theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises, theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Later, Paul will come to the conclusion that, despite the present failure of the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah, their place in God’s plan is irrevocable. They are and remain the chosen people (Rom 11:28-29).

Matthew’s story of Peter’s attempt to walk toward Jesus on the waters of the stormy Sea of Galilee captures the challenge of a Christian trying to be faithful to Jesus in a terrifying situation in which one is not sure of His presence. Matthew stresses that Jesus has sent the disciples out alone into the night storm. After feeding the crowd of 5,000 with loaves and fishes, Jesus insists “that his disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side.” In the meantime, he goes “up on the mountain by himself to pray, remaining there alone as evening drew on.” During the night, the disciples find themselves several hundred yards out from shore “being tossed about in the waves raised by strong head winds.”

When Jesus comes walking toward them on the lake at about 3 a.m., they are so terrified that they assume he is a ghost. Jesus attempts to reassure them with the words: “Get hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid!”

Peter is not sure that this apparition is Jesus, but he is willing to propose a bold test: “Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you across the water.” At once Jesus commands him: “Come.” And, in obedience, Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. But, as he feels the power of the wind, Peter becomes frightened and begins to sink. In desperate faith, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus at once stretches out his hand and catches Peter, but then chides him, “How little faith you have! . ... Why did you falter?”

When our lukewarm faith begins to falter in times of danger, let us make Peter’s desperate, but faith filled, prayer our own: “Lord, save me!”