Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Response: Psalm 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14; Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5; Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33

The 9th century B.C. Prophet Elijah was engaged in his prophetic ministry in the Kingdom of Israel, in northern Palestine. As our first reading opens, we encounter him way down south at Mt. Horeb, an alternate name for Mt. Sinai. Why so far from home? Here’s the story. Ahab, King of Israel, married Jezebel, a non-Israelite and daughter of the King of Sidon. She brought with her to Israel her heathen gods, their worship and their prophets. Her god, Baal, was served by 450 prophets. Jezebel led Ahab into idolatry — the worship of Baal. The Lord God, who often calls himself a jealous god, was not pleased. Neither was Elijah, the Lord’s prophet. Elijah proposed a contest to determine who was the true god, Baal or the Lord God of Israel. Two bulls were slaughtered for sacrifice. One for Baal, the other for the Lord. Whichever god would send fire from the sky to burn up the meat, that was the true god. Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “You go first.” There were 400 prophets of Baal engaged in this project. They built an altar and placed a slaughtered bull on it. They did their hobbling dance around their altar for most of the day, gashing themselves with knives and swords for greater effect, calling on Baal to ignite the sacrifice. Nothing happened.

Elijah repaired a neglected altar of the Lord, put the sacrificial meat on it, dug a trench around the altar, and placed wood with the meat. Three times his assistants saturated the meat, the wood, the altar with water. Even the trench around the altar was filled with water. At the prayer of Elijah the Lord sent fire consuming meat, wood, and licking up the water in the trench. The people were won over to the Lord, crying out, “The Lord is God!” Elijah ordered the prophets of Baal seized, had them taken down to a dry creek, and slaughtered them. When Jezebel was informed of the massacre of her prophets, she sent an “I know where you live” message to Elijah, swearing that she would end his life by the next day. Elijah left town, traveling south out of Jezebel’s jurisdiction, all the way down to Sinai (Horeb). Enroute, he was fed by an angelic food-delivery service. At Mt. Sinai, he sheltered in a cave. The Lord God, pretending he didn’t know what was going on, asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah related the events. The Lord to Elijah, “Go stand outside on the mountain in my presence.” And so he did. A mighty wind tore into the mountain, crushing rocks, followed by an earthquake and fire. The Lord was not in any of these upheavals. After all this there was a tiny whispering sound. It was the Lord. Here our reading ends in suspense. What connects this story to today’s gospel? The connection seems to be in the strong wind that we shall meet in the gospel.

If the first reading had included the bloody prequel and sequel to our first reading, it would be too much of a jolt to suddenly chant the people’s response, “Lord, let us see your kindness….” Nor would it feel appropriate to chant with Psalm 85, how the Lord proclaims peace. Psalm 85 is a prayer for peace. Among its inspiring thoughts are these: “Kindness and truth shall meet. Justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth.” The second reading begins St. Paul’s long discussion of a question painful to him. Why did Jesus’ own people, who are also God’s and Paul’s own people, not accept him as their Messiah? He swears by the Holy Spirit that he is torn by grief and anguish about this situation. He is willing to be cursed and damned if it would bring his people to accept Jesus as their Christ (Messiah). He lists the advantages of being a Jew. Theirs is adoption by God. To them belong the glory of God, the covenants, the worship, the promises, the proper ancestry and the same flesh as the Christ, “who is over all, God blessed forever.”

The context of today’s gospel is a sequel to Jesus feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children, in the wilderness. There was a common belief that, when the Messiah (the Christ) came, the manna that fed the Israelites in the wilderness centuries ago would be renewed. The miracle of the feeding of the multitude affirmed that belief. Besides teaching that Jesus is the Messiah, Matthew has another catechesis in mind — to identify Jesus as more than the Messiah, as God himself. He has, therefore, taken up a teaching we see earlier in his gospel — that the Son born of the virgin “shall be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us.” The catechesis unfolds. After feeding the multitude, and the cleanup by the disciples, Jesus demands they get into their boat and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He did not accompany them, but went up on the mountain to pray — a recharging of his batteries. Meanwhile, between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. the disciples were still rowing westward, but with difficulty, toward the other side of the lake. The wind was blowing strongly from the west. Suddenly, they see Jesus walking on the sea, a kind of foot-surfing from wave to wave. They were terrified. “It is a ghost!” Jesus calmly said, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” But is that the correct translation? The Greek reads, “EGO EIMI,” legitimately translated as the divine name, “I AM,” or (THE ONE WHO IS), the name God reveals as his own in Exodus 3:14.

That “I AM” is the better translation can be indicated by Jesus’ walking on the sea. In Job 9:8, we read of God, “He and no other ... trampled the waves of the sea” (See also Ps. 77:19). In the Old Testament, only God can walk on the sea. Not even Moses could do that, but had to get the water out of the way and walk on the sea bottom. Matthew’s catechesis is not finished yet. He has more to teach about Jesus’ identity. Therefore, he adds a story unique to Matthew — Peter’s attempt to walk on the sea. Peter, ready to challenge the ghost on the sea, said, “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus: “Come on down!” Peter stepped out of the boat. The strong west wind frightened him, and he began to sink. One way out of this disaster, “Lord, save me!” Jesus reaches out to him and scolds him for his lack of faith. Both get into the boat, and the wind became calm. Now the punchline of Matthew’s catechesis. Those in the boat worshipped Jesus, saying, “Indeed, you are the Son of God!”