“In 1986 the level of the Sea of Galilee was extraordinarily low. Marine archaeologists discovered an ancient fishing boat in mud along its northwest shore, a little north of ancient Magdala (modern Migdal).
Basing themselves on the type of construction, the pottery found nearby, and the results of a carbon 14 test, the experts concluded that the boat was built between 40 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. It is very likely the kind of boat mentioned in today’s story, the one used by the Jonah-Zebedee fishing syndicate (see Lk 5:10), which included their sons Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and hired hands.
“The government regulated the fishing industry by selling fishing rights to tax collectors or publicans (brokers). These contracted with fishermen and frequently had to capitalize them. Since Matthew the toll collector had his office in Capernaum (Mt 9:1, 9:9), an important fishing center, it is likely that he brokered the government’s fishing rights to his fellow citizens.
“The boat found in the mud was 26 1/2 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide, and 4 1/2 feet deep. Originally it had a sail. There are places for four oarsmen and a tillerman. A boat this size could hold a crew of five plus ten passengers (Mt 14:22), or the crew plus cargo, for instance, a catch of fish in excess of one ton.”1
And so this wasn’t a tiny boat, exactly, but it wasn’t the type of vessel that would inspire confidence during a raging storm. And if we assume that the twelve disciples were in such a boat on the night described in today’s Gospel, then we have a full ship, taking water, fighting the wind and the waves at about three in the morning. It’s a harrowing scene, and anyone in that situation would know that things could go catastrophically wrong at any second.
But then comes the greater fear. A ghost! A ghost at night, on the water, in a storm. If that ghost was juggling chainsaws, it couldn’t have been any scarier. But wait, Jesus? Oh, it’s Jesus. Does that make this whole thing less scary or more scary?
The disciples were afraid, of course, but Peter, being Peter, decides to test the whole thing out. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says, come to me on the water, come on. Despite seeing Jesus, hearing Him, and then walking on water, Peter’s fear overcomes him; what Peter thinks is reality overrides his ability to trust Jesus, to put his whole faith, even his life, in Jesus’ care, and he sinks like a stone. Jesus doesn’t let Peter die for just having a human reaction, of course, and so He grabs Peter, they load themselves into the boat, and the storm just…goes…away.
“In life the wind is often contrary. There are times when we are up against it and life is a desperate struggle with ourselves, with our circumstances, with our temptations, with our sorrows, with our decisions.”2 Our boat seems to small, the load to heavy, our crew not up to the challenge.
It’s in those times that Jesus comes to us and bids us to come to Him. Sometimes the struggle is just to hear Jesus when the wind is too loud and the boat too creaky. Sometimes we hear Jesus, we trust Him, we walk toward Him, only to lose faith along the way.
We are not alone in all that, this story tells us. Even the twelve disciples were afraid, afraid even in the presence of Jesus. Peter too, even while in the midst of a miracle, lost faith, gave into the fear. But just as Jesus caught Peter, His hand is extended to us. Let today’s Gospel be a reminder that when the wind is contrary and the waves crest over us, Jesus is there, working miracles, calming our storm, telling us “Take heart, it’s me, have no fear.”
1John J. Pilch: http://liturgy.slu.edu/19OrdA081317/theword_cultural.html
2William Barclay: https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/matthew-14.html