Lectionary commentary: nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary time, year A



A reading from the first book of the Kings, 19:9. 11-13

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 85:9-14.R/. v. 8

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 9:1-5

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 14:22-33

As the Italians say, translation is treachery. It is true that each language has nuances and subtleties that, no matter how hard scholars try, prove impossible to say in another language what was precisely said in the original. What is also true is that a particular translation, though it may not reflect the exact meaning of the original, yet it speaks true to the heart of the matter. On the other hand, sometimes translators try to provide a simplification or a clarification of the original, on the grounds that they wish to make it easier for readers and hearers to grasp “what the original author really meant”. Today’s readings provide ample evidence of the truth of the Italian conviction: translation is treachery.

The Mountain of God

Take the story told in today’s Gospel reading.Our Lectionary uses the Jerusalem Bible (JB) translation. In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus dismisses the crowds and then,

… he went up into the hills by himself to pray …

But the Greek that Matthew wrote is quite straightforward and offers no challenge to the translator.The translation is this:

… he went up the mountain by himself …

When Matthew sets the scene for what generations have named The Sermon on the Mount, his first line is this:

Seeing the crowds he went up the mountain …

Matthew 5:1

The Jerusalem Bible and our Lectionary informs readers and hearers that,

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the hill …

Strangely, went Jesus finished the great sermon, the Jerusalem Bible records,

After he had come down from the mountain large crowds followed him.

Matthew 8:1

When we turn to Matthew 15:29, the Jerusalem Bible and our Lectionary on the first Wednesday in Advent informs readers and hearers that,

he went up into the hills.He sat there.

whereas the Greek states quite simply that,

… going up the mountain, he sat down …

At the end of the Gospel the Jerusalem Bible, on Ascension Day and Trinity Sunday in our Lectionary, informs readers and hearers that,

The eleven disciples set out for Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had arranged to meet them.

Matthew 28:16

That is a clear and exact translation of Matthew’s Greek.But that sentence might have cautioned translators that “the mountain” is a specific location, though it is not named.No matter where it was, it is, if I may say so, a theological mountain.The Jew Matthew knew well that of all the mountains in the Bible there is only one “the mountain”.It is Mount Sinai (sometime identified by its other name, Mount Horeb).It is the mountain on which God spoke to Moses literally “mouth to mouth” (στóμα κατα στóμα, stoma kata stoma)[1]. Mount Sinai is the mountain where God made covenant with the People of Israel, the mountain of the Ten Commandments, and the mountain where Moses engaged in intimate conversion with God.Wherever in the Hebrew Bible mention is made of “the mountain”, every Jew on earth, from the days of Moses to today, knows that the mountain in question is God’s mountain, the mountain on which the Jewish people became the people of God.

Matthew sees Jesus imaginatively on that very mountain, “the mountain”, calling into being a community gathered around Jesus.The Jesus people began on “the mountain” on which Jesus sat down, as teachers did, and gave his people a new vision for the future, based on a clear understanding of the past.That vision of the past is enriched by an application of its worth beyond the confines of Israel and the Jewish people.On the mountain Jesus integrated the past with a universal vision, that must embrace, not just the Jewish people, but the people of the world.On the Jesus “Mount Sinai” the community of Jesus people hear what they are called to be.On the Jesus mountain the disciples learn that the world must be embraced by the embrace of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20

Going “up the hill” doesn’t cut it.

A reading from the first book of the Kings, 19:9. 11-13

[Elijah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The word of the Lord.

Elijah, the prophet of God

Elijah had just defeated (and put to the sword) all the prophets of Ba’al, the darlings of Queen Jezebel.She was the wife of King Ahab (a really bad egg: “and Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him”).His wife was the daughter of the king of Sidon (up the coast, north of Tyre) and, we are told, “served Ba’al and worshipped him” (1 Kings 17:31).Elijah in taking on the prophets of Ba’al was taking on the powerful queen who could twist the weak Ahab around her little finger. She wielded the power of the king.Elijah wielded the power of God.It was her gods against the God of Elijah, the prophet of God.[2]

After his victory, and after forty days and forty nights of fasting, Elijah went to Mount Horeb (Sinai), “the mountain of God” (II Kings 19:8).He moved into a cave and there God found him.The fiery prophet does not miss his chance and lays all his troubles and dangers before the Lord, pointing out that his enemies seek his life.God gives a simple instruction:

Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord.

I Kings 19:11

Ba’al, the god of the people of Sidon and of Queen Jezebel did not ignite their fire of sacrifice.Isaiah’s God, faced with an altar doused with three showers of water, and prayed over by the prophet, did not hold back:

Then the fire of the Lord, fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.

I Kings 18:38

The people of Israel, no great shakes when it came to choosing between Ba’al and the Lord God, were convinced:

… when all the people saw it,
they fell on their faces and said,

“The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God!”

I Kings 18:39

Jezebel sent her message to Elijah, the prophet of YHWH Elohim, the Lord God.By the very next day he would be dead.And that was why he fled into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.There an angel of the Lord came and fed him with a freshly baked cake (it’s a great story!) and a jar of water.[3]It was after his evidence of God’s good care that Elijah went to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.There, as Moses before him, he was invited into the presence of the Lord his God.

A still, small voice...

What is happening here is that Elijah is being established as a second Moses. In Exodus 19:16-20 as Moses is called by God to the top of mountain, there is an orchestra of smoke, violent trembling, loud horns, and thunder, announcing the arrival of God on God’s mountain.The Presence of God comes in the cacophony of sound.The text of I Kings presents the same overture to God’s approach to meet with Elijah.

No one, the Bible constantly says, can see God.But the Presence of God can be experienced. There is a mighty wind.There is an earthquake.There is fire but the Lord is not in the fire:

καὶ μετὰ τὸ πῦρ φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς,
and after the fire, a still, small voice.

That is how the scholars assembled by King James I of England translated the Hebrew text, with a close eye on the Septuagint Greek text of this verse.Modern English translations for the most part have dismissed the efforts published in 1611.They offer a variety of translations:

a sound of sheer silence
a soft murmuring sound
a faint murmuring sound
a sound of a gentle blowing
the sound of a gentle breeze
a light murmuring sound
a light sound of silence.

The Greek text notes that the Lord was not in the fire. Rather the Lord passed by Elijah in a tiny breath, if you like, in the sound of silence.

My point is that, where there is difficulty, translators should sometimes be permitted to allow imagination to grapple with the allusiveness of an ancient text. It is a joy and a challenge in prayer to hear a still, small voice.[4]

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 85:9-14.R/. v. 8

R/.Let us hear what the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints;
Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land. R/.

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
and righteousness looks down from the sky. R/.

Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him
and make his footsteps a way. R/.

Psalm 85 poses difficulties because it is impossible to tell whether the Hebrew verbs are past, present, or future. Have the exiles returned and so a prayer of thanksgiving is appropriate. Or is exile still the pain of the people and their prayer is for forgiveness and deliverance from exile? The translation in our Lectionary adopts the future perspective. Thus the psalm is a hopeful prayer that the Lord’s steadfast love is near and there will be a glorious return to the beloved homeland.

God’s steadfast love ensures that the Lord God will keep faith with the covenant made with the people who now languish in exile. They are confident that God’s steadfast love will bring them safely home.

Not only will God’s love ensure a safe delivery. But when they come again to the beloved land, it will be a land of plenty. The hesed God, the God of steadfast love, ensures the well-being of the repentant people.

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 9:1-5

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

The word of the Lord.

Our current Lectionary uses the Jerusalem Bible. Sadly one must point out its translation of today’s text from Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome is seriously anti-Semitic. Paul a Jew, indeed a Pharisee, was passionately Jewish and lived and died a Pharisee. He wrote with a broken heart that most of his fellow-Jews did not accept Jesus. He speaks of his great, and prays that the Holy Spirit guide him to speak the truth concerning Jesus the Messiah(the truth of Christ - the word Christos is the Greek for “messiah”). His heart is scalded because most of his brothers and sisters have not come to their Messiah. He writes about the Jews of his own day, using the present tense:

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law …

Our current Lectionary, based on the Jerusalem Bible offers a very different and erroneous translation:

They were adopted as sons, they were given the glory and the covenants …

The latest version of the Jerusalem Bible, the Revised New Jerusalem Bible, rightly translates St. Paul’s text in its original present tense (They are Israelites …). The RNJB has an explanatory footnote clarifying Paul’s meaning:

Paul places himself in the position of Moses interceding for the people as in Ex 32:30-34 , cf. 2 Co 3:4-11.Throughout ch.9 - 11 he uses the term “Israel” (eleven times) not Jews, thus alluding to their ancient vocation.

RNJB footnote

This is seriously anti-Semitic and misses the pain in Paul’s heart.After all, it was Paul who, at great cost to himself and to his relations with other conservative Jews, such as St. Peter and Barnabas, who did accept Jesus but on their terms, not God’s. Paul and his companions almost singlehandedly created the Gentile churches. Their teaching that God’s salvation in Christ was for the whole of humanity was opposed by most of his Jewish brothers and sisters.What Paul is trying to do, and this is a very personal project, is to ensure that somewhere in God’s concern for the salvation of humanity there is always place for his own beloved people.The key sentence, silencing any uppity Gentile Christians, is this:

Lest you (i.e., Roman Christians, mostly Jews but with an increasing number of Gentiles) be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers and sisters: a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Romans 10:25

We may be sure that that day will come, as certain as Paul was.And we may rejoice that, as Pauls adds,

in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
the Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.
and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins …

He adds,

… as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers

Indeed the final conclusion of Paul puts everyone, Jew and Gentile, in the same basket:

For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Romans 11:32

A word from Vatican II

On 28th October, 1965,as the great Council was drawing to a close, a brief document was issued.It is entitled Nostra aetate(In our time …).Its title is,


The document quotes words from St. Paul, words that occur in our second reading today:

… the Church keeps ever before her mind the words of the apostle Paul about his kinsmen: they are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ

The document, beloved by popes from Paul VI to Pope Francis, adds the following sentences that surely must resonate in every heart that is open to the ways of Jesus the Jew:

It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture.Consequently, all must take care, lest catechising or in preaching the Word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ.[5]

It is time to repent of the past and to make a very firm purpose of amendment.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

The Gospel of the Lord.

On their own...

The first word of our Gospel reading must not be missed: immediately. Jesus sends his disciples away to sail to the other side of the lake as he dismisses the crowds.There is no comment on the feeding that has taken place.No reaction from the people.No wonder from them or from the disciples.Matthew’s readers and hearers are left to their own surmises.The version of the story told in John’s Gospel ends very differently:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

John 6:15

Matthew makes no such observation.But his immediately must not be ignored. This is the first time that the disciples are sent across the lake on their own.In chapter 8 we read the story of the calming of a great storm.On that occasion Jesus was in the boat with his disciples. If we see that story, as most scholars do, as a mirror of the Christian community that, in times of peril, think that Jesus sleeps through their anxieties and fears, then they are mistaken. For even before the child was born we are assured by the angel in Joseph’s dream that his name is Immanuel, that means God-with-Us.

But in this second story of a storm Jesus is not in the boat of the Church. Disciples are sent away on their own for the very first time since joining the Jesus enterprise.[6] There two little details to notice. This is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus is discovered praying. Secondly, the disciples in their boat are far away from Jesus:

… the boat by this time was a long way from the land, battered by the waves …

Matthew 14:24[7]

Readers and hearers must keep in mind that as the wind blows fiercely across the lake, Jesus is on the mountain by himself and he is praying.

Matthew relates this incident with his eye very much on the little communities of Christians in Syria. Battered by internal tensions and divisions and by the fear of persecution, already a feature of Christian experience from Antioch to Rome, Matthew seeks their comfort. Readers and hearers of every age must bear in mind where we are in the story: we are on the mountain and we are on the sea in the storm-tossed boat.

A sea of storms

The sea is not a friendly place for the people who gave us our Bible.Noah’s ark ran into a mountain.Jonah was swallowed by a great sea beast.St Paul was shipwrecked three times. The sea in the Bible is always inhabited by the forces of chaos.Even in the beauty of creation, earth and sea are meant to be separate, each to its own place:

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Genesis 1:9-10

The first sailor in the Bible, (and there are not many), was six hundred years old (!) when he and his family entered the ark.

On that very day,

all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of heaven were opened.

Genesis 7:11

The Book of the Psalms is everywhere certain that the sea is a dangerous place. It harbours the demons of the deep that are capable of bursting out to cause wrack and ruin and bring to death those who go down to the sea in ships:

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold.

Psalm 69:1

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits' end.

Psalm 107:23-27

If God did not keep the waters of the deep in their allotted confines lives would be lost.But God is the one,

… who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’.

Job 38:8-11

God is the one power who can stay the waves of destruction:

The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the Lord on high is mighty.

Psalm 93:3-4

The agents of evil who dwell in the deep waters were given names such as Leviathan and Rahab and poets loved to sing of the ease with which God controls such destructive adversaries. At the end of the Book of Job the fertile imagination of its author pictures God pointing out to Job that the human mind cannot probe the mind of God.With his fishing rod God can play with the demons of the deep as if they were little fishes:

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook
or press down his tongue with a cord?
Can you put a rope in his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?

Job 41:1-2

Isaiah pens the same vision of God’s saving intentions:

Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over.

Isaiah 51:9-10

The Lord’s promise to those who sail on the deep is this:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

Isaiah 43:2

The imagination of Israel’s poets provides Matthew with an abundance of imagery that takes his story of Jesus walking on Galilee’s waters as an enduring symbol of his constant and vigilant care. When his little churches make their way across the seas of troubles that come to them wherever they proclaim the gospel of God, he will come to them.

Walking on waters

The storm is fierce.But Jesus has prayed and he comes as always to stormed-tossed disciples. He comes in the fourth watch, in the darkness of the night, walking on the sea of troubles besetting his troubled little boat of a church. They see a ghost, terrified as they are. Yet in the height of their fear there is a voice that stills their fear:

Immediately Jesus spoke to them,
“Take heart!
Don’t be afraid!”

Matthew 14:27

There is much to ponder here.First Matthew puts “immediately” as his first word. The Jesus who saves does not tarry.His little church is shrouded in fear.Straightaway, without delay, he comes. His word is a saving word.Have courage, take heart; he will still the powers of chaos.

Of course, Jesus will still the storm.He speaks with all the power and authority of God.It is God who,

alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea.

Job 9:8

Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?

Isaiah 51:10

To identify Jesus as I AM is on every page of the Gospel according to John and that Gospel, alone of the four, is called “the theological Gospel”. That title belongs as much to Mark, Matthew, and to Luke.For they, too, know and teach that Jesus speaks with the voice of God.

Lord, save me!

Mark’s Gospel has an account of the Lord coming to the storm-stricken disciples walking on the water (Mark 6:45-56).He does not have the incident concerning Peter walking on the water.Since Matthew used Mark’s text as the basis of his own account, we may wonder why he adds the piece about Peter asking Jesus to invite him on his walk over the waters. John’s version of the walking on the water (John 6:16-21) is brief and without the Peter addition.Luke does not have the incident.

Because of its strangeness many commentators doubt that both the walking on the water and the Peter addition ever happened as a matter of historical record.After all, St. Mark tells us that the disciples thought what they saw was a ghost, a delusional apparition that terrified everyone in the boat.

We are never going to reach unanimous agreement on the matter. It may be a symbolic story spliced from readings in the Hebrew Bible of incidents concerning some prophetic figures. In II Kings 2:14 Elisha strikes the River Jordan with the cloak of Elijah and the river parts allowing the prophet to walk across.In 6:1-7 in the same book records that Elisha causes an axe head to float.One of the most amazing and cherished stories in the Hebrew Bible is, of course, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, enabling the Moses and the fleeing slaves to reach freedom as the Egyptian army is drowned as the waves return (Exodus 14:1 - 31).

I am concerned that the story pictures Peter questioning the identity of Jesus (“If it is you …”) just as the devil tests Jesus beginning with an identity question (“If you are …”-Matthew 4:3).One thing is certain. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel every sentence and every page insists on faith in God and faith in Jesus. The lesson of Peter’s challenge to Jesus is that it is faith that matters.Jesus has to save Peter as so often in the Gospel he needs saving.His prayer to Jesus as he sinks beneath the waves is so like a prayer a prayer known to all Christians and always a prayer that needs to be made:

Κύριε, σῶσόν με.
Kyrie, sōson mē
Lord, save me!

An imperative, as is our plea in Kyrie, eleison: Lord, save!

Peter’s prayer here is identical to the prayer uttered by all the disciples who were threatened by a great storm on the same lake as Jesus slept in the boat, apparently unconcerned (Matthew 8:25). The lesson is that Jesus is never so deeply asleep that he will not be awakened when we shake him with our urgent prayers. His sleep is always a watchful sleep.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

[1] The word “stoma” will be familiar to people with treatment for a variety of illnesses.

[2] A Jezebel is mentioned in Revelation 2:20,“a woman who calls herself a prophet”. Not a very nice person.

[3] According toExodus 24:18, Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai enjoying the presence of the glory of YHWH that settled on the mountain.

[4] The Revised Standard Version, a child of the KJV, retains “a still, small voice”. The New Revised Standard Versiov offers “a sound of sheer silence”.

[5] These quotations are from §4 of the document. The Committee for Religious Relations with the Jews, under the direction of Pope Paul VI, issued further clarifications on Nostra aetate in 1974.

[6] In 10:5:52,the missionary instruction, careful reading indicates that actually on that occasion the disciples do not leave Jesus himself leaves them and begins a mission “to teach and preach in their cities”.

[7]One of the meanings of the Greek verb used here by St. Matthew here (βασανιζω basanizo) can mean “to torture). The use of this verb emphasises the danger of the fierce storm that has blown up on the sea.