Wind across the quay-side / Grit in my eyes and fish in my nose / White as whalebone, wheeling seagulls cry.
—from “Never So Free,” by Bruce Cockburn
The gospel of Matthew is alive with fish: Nets are filled with them (Matthew 13:47), fishers are called to catch human beings (Matthew 4:18-19), and a crowd is fed on a few loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:17-20). According to biblical historian K.C. Hanson, “because Jesus made his residence in the fishing village of Capernaum during his ministry and traveled up, down, and across the Sea of Galilee, the lives of these real fishing families became the fabric from which he wove many of his metaphors and told his stories.”
This month the gospel readings from Matthew 14-16 are drawn from the stark realities of this family-based fishing economy and its encounter with Rome.
Near Capernaum, three miracles—a feeding, a sea rescue, and a healing and restoration—remind us that even today the very poor are the people who are most harmed by famine and hunger, disease and disability, and storms and natural disasters.
In quite different ways, the feeding story and Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman highlight the importance of women, surplus food, and children. And although we find a complex and detailed portrait of the fisherman Peter, in Matthew it is not the known insiders but nameless women who represent the model of faithfulness.
Not Counting Women and Children
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Beside the Sea of Galilee, a crowd is fed on a few loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:16-21). According to the New English Translation, about 5,000 ate, “not counting women and children.” But bad things happen when women and children aren’t counted, and fish are not always a sign of abundance.
Mothers on a budget know that fish is a cheap source of protein. Tuna sandwiches and casseroles are a step up from baloney or peanut butter, food banks distribute surplus fish, and the federal Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program (WIC) provides vouchers for tuna. But tuna is the largest single avenue of mercury exposure in the United States. Mercury is a brain toxin released by coal-burning power plants; it enters the water and is concentrated as it moves up the food chain into the bodies of predatory fish and the humans who eat them. Mercury is transmitted from mother to infant across the placenta and in breast milk.
Environmental groups claim that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are bending to pressure from the tuna and coal industries and failing to protect the public from the risk of mercury exposure with their weak guidelines about tuna consumption and mercury production. Some women can purchase non-animal protein or less dangerous fish, but poor women in the U.S. are placed in the unacceptable position of having to choose whether to take free food that may harm them and their children.
Here Comes Trouble
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
In today’s gospel reading, the disciples are in a boat, and, like other sea rescue narratives (Matthew 8:23-27, John 6:16-21), the passage refers to the liberation story of Exodus and a God whose power is likened to sea and storm.
Striking in this passage is the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response. Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not “troubled” (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26). Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3). For those of us who would follow him and for those who oppose him, Jesus comes to us powerfully in dangerous times, and we are troubled.
Jesus responds to the disciples not by stilling the water, but by saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27), echoing passages from the Exodus story where the Israelites are told, “Be strong and bold ... because it is the Lord your God who goes with you” (Exodus 14:13-14, Deuteronomy 31:6). In effect, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid that I am ‘I AM.’”
Part of me wants to answer, “I know—that’s what I’m afraid of!” For Herod, for me, and perhaps for the disciples, Jesus’ powerful claim is not reassuring. We fear the life-changing power of God-with-us.
Honor and Shame
Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Romans 11:1-2, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28
An Indigenous woman asks Jesus to help her child, and he calls the woman a dog (Matthew 15:21-28).
Various scholars and homilists have attempted to make this story nice—for example, Jesus was testing the woman because he recognized her strength of character; the two engaged in a mutual exercise of role-playing to teach the disciples a lesson; the exchange was playful and the dogs in question were puppies and pets. To me, these are weak arguments. The story is powerful, but it is not nice—“dog” is an insult to a woman who is racialized and colonized, and it is Jesus, not the disciples, doing the insulting.
Whether it is due to desperation, absolute focus on her child, or some deep integrity and wholeness, the woman is not shamed; indeed, she acts shamelessly by engaging Jesus in a public contest of wit. Unlike his many similar exchanges with scribes, Pharisees, and leaders, Jesus is not the winner. The doubly marginalized Canaanite woman has the last, and best, word.
This is a profound challenge to the gender-based honor/shame system—a shameless woman is honored and Jesus is apparently shamed. Rather than slinking offstage or mounting a counterattack, Jesus broadens his understanding of who the kingdom is for and honors his opponent: “Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:28).
Do Not Be Conformed
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Do not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). I have never much felt the allure of being conformed to the world. For those of us who for various reasons—tattoos, piercings, gay or lesbian identity, disability, skin color, poverty—are labeled “different” or “other,” fitting social, economic, physical, and gender norms may be a temptation, but it is usually not an option.
But being conformed to the world, and to systems of domination that depend on our conforming, is just the first part of the verse. The second part seems much harder. “[B]ut be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” So with family, friends, and fellow travelers, let us all pray for transformation and renewal to discern the will of God as we live out our stories of struggle and resistance in a world defined by empire.
Rock and Stumbling Block
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Brash, blundering, and undaunted—the character of Peter is more developed in Matthew than in the other gospels. He first appears casting a net into the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18), and the last time he is mentioned by name, Peter weeps bitterly over his denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:75).
This week and last, the lectionary divides a single story about Peter. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” When Peter responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus affirms him and his answer: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. ... I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:15-19). But as Jesus begins to teach that his path is one of suffering and death, Peter reveals that he has a profoundly different understanding of what Messiah means. He cannot imagine a Messiah who could experience shame, a Messiah who could die, and in the space of four verses, Jesus’ rebuke is as powerful as his praise: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:23).
This complicated portrait of Peter has to do with leadership issues in the early church, but as modern readers—with our minds on human things—we get the gift of a deeply human Peter. He’s both rock and stumbling block; he gets it and doesn’t get it—spectacularly. He is chided for his “little faith,” but he also leaps out of the boat to come to Jesus on the water.
Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia. www.laureldykstra.com