Genesis 37. 1-4; 12-28
Matthew 14. 22-33
SOME of you may recall an advert for one of the high-street banks. It took us on a mini world-tour, in which a bemused Westerner from somewhere like Berkshire had to understand and adapt to the habits of the Japanese, the Maori, the Inuit, and so on.
What was memorable about the advert was a belief that we should recognise and value the differences in our global community. The motive for doing so was that it made good business sense. We may find it more difficult, however, to value differences from another era of history which is not our own, especially if it challenges our comfort zone.
A simple example would be that of posture. In an egalitarian age, we in the West are generally uncomfortable with the notion of “bowing and scraping” towards another person or object. It can be thought to imply a deference that is degrading, or, worse, superstition.
To a certain extent, the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo agreed with this, writing in his Decalogue: “Let us not do obeisance to those who by nature are brothers.” Philo was objecting to the notion that the Roman emperor was worthy of an obeisance that implied more than human status.
This is the cultural context in which Matthew uses the Greek word proskunein, to bow down, at the end of today’s Gospel, when the disciples worship Jesus. The same word occurs in the account of the adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2.2, 8, 11). Here, the reference seems to point very clearly in Matthew’s mind towards a statement of the divinity of the Christ-child.
The episode in today’s gospel presents another expression of the true character of Jesus. When the disciples worship Jesus, their gesture suggests recognition of him as the one who saves. Peter has experienced this for himself in the threat to his personal and physical safety, when he cries out, “Lord, save me.”
The background to this story is found in what was a conventional statement about enduring persecution. We find this in Psalm 107.23-31, which speaks of God's calming the sea and bringing a ship’s crew through the waves “unto their desired haven” (KJV). And, closer to the time when Matthew wrote his gospel, one of the texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls speaks of Jacob, intervening from heaven, as it were, during a time of persecution for the Jews, and, as a result, the “ship of Jacob” also reached its haven.
In Matthew’s use of this convention, the disciples, struggling against a headwind, are finding the going tough as they share in the mission and ministry of Jesus. It is an image of the Church under strain and persecution — the reality of Christian discipleship. The encounter with Jesus in the fourth watch tells us that the struggle has been going on virtually all night.
The disciples are exhausted. Their response is not carefully measured: it is instinctive. They have encountered something amazing. Worship in obeisance and silence is the automatic reaction. At this stage, they might not fully understand the implication of their actions. Their gesture of worship has the quality of an unselfconscious rehearsal.
Like others — Jairus, or the mother of James and John, for example — who approach Jesus and bow down or kneel at his feet, the obeisance straddles good manners blended with an inexplicable conviction of divine life revealed in him. This sort of worship will form the concluding scene of Matthew’s Gospel, when the disciples again meet Jesus in Galilee and confront the unimaginable truth of his resurrection (Matthew 28.17).
I often think that in the Church of England we are in danger of forgetting that such worship also has a place in our own tradition. The recovery of different and more ancient postures for worship has directed us to standing for prayer, as well as kneeling. Much of that is to be welcomed, especially where it makes a more positive statement about the dignity of the human person who is engaged in offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God.
The loss of any expectation that we might kneel in worship, or bow in devotion, however, removes us from the conventions of our faith and makes the reading of its texts and practice that much more difficult.
The biblical record is not strong on sitting comfortably for liturgical prayer in the presence of God. Nor is this simply a matter of agility or our loss of it. The immobile who wish to offer worship in the form of obeisance know well how to express that inner oblation.
Bowing down in awe and wonder is a stark and extreme statement of engagement. The business world will do it for trade and financial gain. Would we not do it in response to the mystery of God which we have no other means of articulating?
St John Chrysostom, reflecting on this episode, observes that “the wilderness is the mother of silence; it is a calm and a harbour, delivering us from all turmoils.” Perhaps we need to find more time for silent worship on our knees — or equivalent — as an investment in the harbour of heaven.
Genesis 37. 1-4; 12-28 (NRSV)
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13 And Israel said to Joseph, ‘Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ 14 So he said to him, ‘Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ 16 ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said; ‘tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.’ 17 The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, “Let us go to Dothan.” ’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ 21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ 22 Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
Romans 10.5-15 (NRSV)
5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say?
‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because* if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’
Matthew 14.22-33 (NRSV)
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’