Matthew 14.25 Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water.
We all probably know of the advice
sometimes given that to get out of trouble one should make one's excuse as
fantastic as possible - on the grounds that genuine, ordinary ones are not
I sometimes wonder if some
Christian claims are not similarly motivated.
example, some assert that prayer will heal - but
don't test their results. Others shout from the rooftops that God loves us
- but avoid hard questions from those who are remorselessly buffeted by
life's perils. Yet others proclaim the attractions of life after death -
but fail to reflect that only the dead know the truth.
Many of us, and I'm one of them, dislike grandiose claims.
Over-inflated claims prey - albeit often unintentionally - on those who
are not used to weighing up pros and cons. To others who have limited
capacity for abstract thought, they may appear true even though they are
actually little more than fantastic.
carefully-phrased grandiosities succeed in attracting even the most
thoughtful when they are in trouble or sorrow. "Perhaps," they reason,
"just perhaps, there's something in it. It's worth a shot."
Maybe I'm being too cynical. But I nevertheless think it's worth asking
what we are to make of the claim in today's Gospel that Jesus walked on
water. Isn't this a grandiose claim? Doesn't it go against everything we
know about the world we live in? Might it not mislead some people?
One helpful observation might be that this tale would not have been
incredible when this Gospel was written. Such wonderful stories were
common in those days. And because both ordinary and educated people then
had no inkling of what we now call "science", an event like this would
have been believed by many as an account of what really happened.
So what may seem to us a grandiose claim was ordinary to the author of
Matthew's Gospel. To him and others such events were "wonders" and "signs"
of divine, but not uncommon, intervention into our world. In other words,
it is we, not they, who regard such tales as miraculous. In their eyes it
was wonderful that Jesus could have walked on water. But it was not
contrary to the way they thought the world works.
What are we in the 21st century to make of all this? The trouble is that
if we insist that this story tells of a miracle, a violation of the way
the world usually works, there may be a number of unfortunate
First, a claim of a miracle is
likely to be regarded as ridiculous both by most ordinary folk and by a
majority of well-informed thinkers. It becomes a grandiose claim, not
worth its salt. It becomes just one of those fantastic things which
gullible religious people tend to believe despite all evidence to the
Second, those of us who are
committed to Jesus and who recognise the impossibility of the act
described here, are sometimes driven to esoteric explanations. One such
might be, for example, that Jesus probably wasn't walking on water but on
a shallow sand bar. It wasn't really miraculous, it only looked that way.
Well, one can go this route if one wishes - but it's essentially a fudge,
replacing one bad answer (it was a miracle) with another bad answer (it
was a mistake).
A similar claim might be that
"Jesus was God and could therefore do anything he liked." To assert this
is to abandon two thousand years of human learning. We know that to be
truly human Jesus had to be as limited as we all are. We know how genes
work; we know much about evolution, gravity, the surface tension of water
and a host of other things which render this escape route worse than
Third, it encourages some people (perhaps
more than we realise) to split off their faith from the rest of their
lives. With one part of their minds they believe the literal truth of
today's Gospel. With another they live a life which includes knowledge of
the surface tension of water - a tension too weak support the weight of a
human being.. They divide knowledge into "religious" and "secular" parts.
In effect, they become a religious schizophrenics.
Fourth, it encourages some to make today's Gospel into allegory. "This is
a story which tells us to be ready for the unexpected," a preacher might
say. I think this device, however potentially entertaining, is little less
than placing personal thoughts on a hanger labelled "God's Word and
therefore to be believed without question."
worth reiterating that Matthew's author and his fellow Christians of the
1st century were not dishonest. Their understanding of how the world works
was seriously incomplete. They were limited - but they were not
trying to spin a yarn.
It's difficult to explain
such distinctions. But unless we try to do just that, we have only
ourselves to blame if Jesus is ridiculed. If we make grandiose claims of
miraculous events, we have only ourselves to blame if we're reduced to
gullible fools in the eyes of God's children.
then is to be done?
Perhaps honesty is the best
Perhaps admitting that walking on the
water is impossible will be more productive than trying to dress the
Gospel up in emperor's clothes.
that this is no more than a story which meant something two thousand years
ago, but is now not of much use, is a better way.