The gospel reading recounts a familiar story of Peter, Jesus, and a boat full of disciples during a windy storm. If you’ve been in a faith family for very many years, you have no doubt heard interpretations of this story in countless study groups, homilies, or sermons. One common cliché associated with the story is “you have to get out of the boat in order to walk on water.” The notion behind the saying is that you have to have the courage to step out of your current situation in order to do faith-filled, wonderful things. I happen to be someone who is always fascinated with what could be new or next, so a good excuse to jump ship sounds enticing. If you know me, though, you know that I’ve been married for almost 20 years and have been at Creighton more than 12 years. Obviously I have resisted the impulse to jump ship, at least on these two fronts, for many years.
I remember sitting in a study group that was organized around this theme (you have to get out of the boat in order to walk on water) a few years ago when the following thought came to me, “what if I was put in this boat by God?” I can look back and see ways in which I think God was at work in my choice of a marriage partner and in my coming to Creighton. Leaving either of those, then, seems a different thing than, say, a tax collector leaving aside his old profession to follow Jesus full time. It is sometimes difficult to figure out how to handle stories of jumping ship or leaving everything behind if you’ve been a follower for many years. At the very least, I take from the stories that I must be indifferent to any possession or situation. I have to be willing to leave anything if called to do so.
Two things stand out in the account from Matthew. First, at the beginning of the passage it indicates that Jesus was instrumental in getting those disciples in the boat and out in that water. “Jesus made the disciples get in the boat” in the New American Bible language. It seems unlikely then, that the following events are about the bad choice or mistake that those disciples made to get in that boat in the first place. So, we might be called out of a situation even if that situation was one in which we were well-placed at the time we entered it. Second, notice that Peter takes time, despite the chaos and fear, to ask for clarification and confirmation before jumping. While he might have been tempted to jump in as soon as he heard Jesus’ voice, he waits. When he gets the reply from Jesus, then he shows great faith in being willing to step out to do something that seems impossible and awesome (i.e., to walk on water). We’re left to ponder what it means that Peter asks and risks while the rest stay in the boat. Jesus speaks to Peter who asks for direction. We don’t know if he would have invited all out into the water if they had asked or if there was some particular reason that he invited Peter. There is no element of the story in which he lectures the other disciples about their lack of faith in not asking. It seems almost unfair that Peter, who shows faith to risk so much, ends up on the receiving end of the lecture about being “of little faith.”
The story from Jeremiah provides two additional insights concerning discernment. It reminds us to ask ourselves about our motive. If our motive is to do something exciting that brings attention to our self, then we had best be warned from numerous stories, including this one in Jeremiah, that this can lead to big trouble! If Peter had jumped out of the ship to show that he could walk on water in order to bring attention to himself, the story in Matthew might have taken a different turn. Hananiah brought a message that people wanted to hear, with a dramatic visual demonstration to boot. No doubt it brought Hananiah the praise and attention that he may have calculated that it would. However, it was destructive to the Lord’s purpose for His people.
The story in Jeremiah also illustrates that discernment can take time. Unlike the gospel story in which Peter gets immediate confirmation of Jesus’ call, Jeremiah does not find out that Hananiah was not speaking a true prophesy until some time later. Jeremiah appears skeptical at the time of Hananiah’s prophesy, but waits until he hears confirmation before judging it false and taking action against it.
Ignatian spirituality emphasizes the importance of developing practices of discernment. Through prayer, reflection, and consultation we strive to continue to improve our ability to pay attention to calls of God’s spirit so we continue to grow in our ability love, reverence, and serve God. I pray that the scriptures today sharpen our hearing and strengthen our courage to act on what we hear.
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