In these chapters we see something of Jesus’ power over the material world – miraculously multiplying food in two great miracles, and walking on storm-tossed water. Matthew presumably wants us to see that Jesus’ power is not only in the effect he has on human hearts – though that is miracle enough.
We also see something of the way of discipleship, contrasting the Pharisees and Peter. The concern of the Pharisees seems unbelievable compared to the things that are happening around Jesus. The disciples have shared in the ‘All you can eat’ miracle of bread and fish on a hillside. They have watched as Jesus and (briefly) Peter walk on water. They have seen people healed just by touching Jesus’ cloak. And the Pharisees are worried about their spiritual welfare because they haven’t washed their hands properly, and they might eat something unclean.
In response, Jesus makes a radical statement, which sets his followers apart from other Jews and from followers of pretty much any religion. No food is unclean. In fact, nothing from outside ourselves is unclean. It’s what comes out of the heart that defines cleanness before God, not what goes into the stomach. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter what we eat – we have bodies to care for – or what goes into our hearts and minds, for all those things affect our heath (physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual). But what matters is the consequence of what goes in, not where it comes from or exactly what it is, let alone how it’s prepared.
Christianity is, I think, unusual in being an ancient faith with no laws about food – no kosher or halal, no sacred cows. We’re left to make our own decisions about what and how we eat, in relation to our own cultures and preferences. After all, the laws about food were to do with guarding the boundaries of Israel, not about the wider question of acceptability to God. The Pharisees had made the mistake of thinking that those were really the same issue. Jesus disagreed. God’s care for the Gentiles was nothing new, but he was now welcoming them into the people of the covenant alongside the Jews. To us, Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman in 15:21-28 seem harsh at first, and it’s tempting to try to explain them away. But in the setting of his day, his response was one of radical inclusion – on the basis of her faith, her nationality became unimportant and her prayer was answered.
It must have been overwhelming for the disciples as it dawned on them how different was Jesus’ way of living faith from anything they’d known before. The old rules were fading fast into the background, and they were following wherever he led. Peter, being Peter, took it a step further then the others.
His story in 14:22-33 is wonderful. Recognising Jesus walking on the waves, he knows that this looks great, but has enough sense to know that he needs to be called by Jesus, not just to decide to give it a go. Then, while he answers Jesus’ call and looks to him, it goes well, and he walks on the water. It all starts to go wrong when he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the waves – their threat sinks in and so does Peter.
But as well as seeing that Peter can achieve something incredible when answering Christ’s call and so long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus, I’ve just been struck by a detail in the story I hadn’t thought about before. When Peter is sinking and cries for help, Jesus immediately reaches out and lifts him to the boat. If we start by following Christ’s call, we have to get out of the boat of our security and normality. And at some point, we’ll probably start to sink. But Jesus won’t leave us to swim to shore.
We can trust him enough to take the risk of following. In the words of the title of an excellent book by John Ortberg, ‘If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.’
Which boat is my source of security? And where is Jesus calling me to walk with him?