Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

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

As our first reading opens, the prophet Elijah, 850 B.C., is at Mt. Horeb, (an alternate name for Mt. Sinai), in the Sinai wilderness. Elijah’s ministry was centered on the Kingdom of Israel in northern Palestine. Why was he way down south in Sinai? The rest of the story. The basic context is a contest between the Phoenician god Baal and the Lord God of Israel. The people of the northern kingdom had fallen into idolatry worshipping Baal. This god gained his prominence because King Ahab had married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. She brought along the worship of her own god Baal and his 450 priests. King Ahab and many Israelites began worshipping Baal. Elijah decided there should be a contest to see who is the true God, Baal or the Lord God of Israel. The contest centered around a sacrificial altar, a slaughtered bull placed on each. The people agreed that they would call on Baal to light the wood for the sacrifice. They pleaded with Baal, dancing around the altar, shouting, gashing themselves, all to no avail. Baal did not reply.

Now it was Elijah’s turn. He saturated the meat and the altar with water three times. He called on the Lord. Fire fell from heaven and burned up the meat, the wood, and even the water that had flowed into a trench around the altar. The people fell prostrate and shouted, “The Lord is God!” Elijah ordered the prophets of Baal seized. He took them to a dry creek and slaughtered them. A message from Queen Jezebel to Elijah: “I swear that by this time tomorrow your life will be like the life of my prophets,” (whom he had executed). Elijah fled south, wishing he were dead. He fell asleep. An angel woke him up and brought him a hot roll and a jar of water. After eating, he fell asleep again. The angel returned with more food and drink. Elijah traveled south to Mt. Horeb, 40 days and nights, on the strength of that angelic food. He entered a cave. There he encountered the Lord God, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He told his story. The Lord ordered him to go out and stand on the mountain. The Lord passed by. A violent wind tore into the mountain shattering rocks. An earthquake struck, then fire, but the Lord was not in any of these terrors. Then “a tiny whispering sound.” The Lord sent him back to work in the Kingdom of Israel, anoint a new king and a prophetic successor, Elisha.

The Responsorial Psalm 85 picks up on Elijah’s mountain experience, “I will hear what the Lord proclaims . . . .” So far so good. Then the Psalmist: “for he proclaims peace.” This might be construed to respond to the “tiny whispering sound,” but definitely not to the commissioning of Elijah to bring terror to the northern kingdom. Other beautiful thoughts of Psalm 85: “Kindness and truth shall meet. Justice and peace shall kiss.” All can join the prayer of the people’s response: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.”

The second reading is the opening of St. Paul’s three-chapter-long discussion on a subject painful to him. Why did Jesus’ own people, (who were also Paul’s own people), not accept him as their Christ (Messiah)? In today’s brief excerpt we see nothing of Paul’s long agonizing discussion of the problem. This is only the introduction. He swears by his conscience and by the Holy Spirit that he is torn by grief and anguish over this problem. He swears that he himself would accept damnation if it would bring his people to Christ. Our reading closes with a statement Christians do well to remember, that the Israelites (Jews) are still special to God because they are adopted as God’s family. They have the covenants, and from them “according to the flesh is the Messiah (the Christ) who is over all, the blessed God forever.”

The gospel reading is sequel to the feeding of the 5,000+ people in the wilderness. Jesus sent the disciples back into their boat to head out to sea while he dismissed the crowd. It was time to recharge his batteries. He went up on a nearby hill to pray alone until evening. The disciples in the boat were fighting a headwind. Early in the morning he was spotted walking on the sea toward them. They were terrified, thinking it was a ghost. Jesus spoke words of encouragement, identifying himself. Our translation reads, “It is I.” Recall that Matthew is teaching catechism and sees an opportunity to reinforce what he had taught in the annunciation to Joseph, 1:23, “His name shall be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” A more correct translation of Jesus’ self-identification would be the sacred name God reveals to Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM.” This translation would correspond to the ending of our gospel reading. When those in the boat with Jesus reach land, they worship him, saying, “Indeed you are the Son of God.” It is true that this divine name for Jesus will become more prominent a decade or so later in the Gospel of John, but Matthew’s catechesis can be seen as moving in that direction.

Besides claiming the divine name, there is another way of identifying Jesus’ divinity in this story. In the Old Testament only God walks on water. Job 9:8, “. . . who alone. . . trampled the waves of the sea.” Psalm 77:19, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters, but your footprints were unseen.” Matthew now attaches to the story of Jesus walking on the sea a tradition found only in his gospel: Simon Peter walks on water, or attempts it. An impulsive Simon Peter is never at a loss for words. He challenges Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus agrees. Peter steps onto the water, but the strong wind frightened him. As he began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus grabs Peter’s hand and rebukes him more gently than he will in a later episode, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Moving into a homiletic style, one could say the boat is the Church. The disciples were compelled by Jesus himself to be in the boat without him. He is no longer physically present to us as he was with the disciples, but he can be reached in prayer, “Lord, save us!” Matthew signs off with a nod toward what he was teaching, “Indeed you are the Son of God!”