by Tricia Gates Brown
Chaos makes people anxious. In fact, some people deliberately foment chaos because chaos also creates compliance. The person who created the chaos can offer to put an end to it, and thus to the anxiety, if only the subordinate will fall in line and comply with the chaos-maker’s program. Usually this works only temporarily, perhaps affording one long breath of chaos-free air, or one day, one week, before the chaos cycle repeats. Every person who’s experienced an emotionally or physically abusive relationship knows this cycle. Psychologists know the cycle.
Americans too are becoming familiar with the chaos cycle as our President creates and thrives on chaos. There is nothing especially perceptive about this observation, which is becoming obvious to those observing the halls of US government. The question that interests me is how we manage our anxiety in such a time of chaos—an anxiety not only impacting Americans, but global citizens worried about instability in an economic superpower like the US.
A lectionary reading for this week speaks of fear and anxiety. Before I turn to it, a word on interpretation. In approaching a scriptural text, I agree with those who contend the best question to ask is: Why? Why has the writer told this story (or penned this poem; or recorded this genealogy)? Not what do they mean, or exactly how do they say what they say. The question that splits open the geode, revealing the bright, shimmering magnificence inside a biblical text is: Why? And I would add a second key question: Who is the story telling readers to be? Because in general, the purpose (the why) of sacred stories is often to tell readers who to be, to lay out what it means to live a worthy life.
The lectionary has us in Matthew 14, with this week’s reading showing Peter walking over choppy waves. The headline that usually emerges from this story is “Jesus walks on water.” But the storyteller takes this observation in stride. What the writer really wants to emphasize is Peter’s fear. When Peter becomes frightened by the big waves and starts to sink, he calls out to Jesus to save him. After Jesus does so, he says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Before we ask the why question, notice the larger story progression of which this narrative is a part. The walking-on-water tale is one of three stories grouped together that all focus on trust. First we have the story of the great feeding. Jesus tells the disciples to feed a large crowd that has followed him to a remote location (5,000 men, aside from women and children). The disciples are incredulous, having only five loaves of bread and two fish, yet as instructed, give the bread and fish to the crowd. Everyone is fed—so abundantly that twelve baskets are needed to haul away the leftovers. Then after the walking-on-water story, there is the healing of the sick at Gennesaret who spread the word that simply touching the fringe of Jesus’ cloak will heal, which is also about trust. In fact, all three tales are about trusting in the midst of seeming impossible situations. While the beggars at Gennesaret exemplify trust, the disciples repeatedly fall short.
These trust stories are, moreover, sandwiched between stories of conflict and threat—first by Jesus’ home town crowd, next by Herod, who decides to kill John the Baptist, then, in Chapter 15, conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of the day calling Jesus and his followers rule-breakers. So the focus of all three wonder-working stories is trust. And the trust stories are set in a context of conflict.
Why does the gospel writer tell these stories? And who is he telling the readers to be? Again, these are our most fruitful questions.
The completion of the Gospel of Matthew is generally placed around 80 CE—thus it came out of a time of almost unimaginable chaos. Like certain other New Testament texts, it is war literature, written and collated amidst the slaughter of Jews by the Rome Empire. The First Gospel’s author/s organized and interpreted stories of Jesus’ life as they did in order to inculcate hope in people facing torture, possible death, and/or the obliteration of their communities. This is the general “why” behind Matthew. In the immediate background of the gospel is this war between Rome and factions of the Jewish community that culminated in the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE when, it was reported, 10,000 Jews were crucified by the Empire—crucifixion being the ultimate humiliation and obliteration of a human being. 10,000 in a single year, in a single city. In the decades and years preceding and following this, there were thousands more crucifixions, not to mention innumerable imprisonments and sexual assaults, which always accompany war. The author tells the Jesus story as he does to encourage trust and faithfulness among his beleaguered community. Not only have they suffered through war, but they are witnessing a cataclysmic reordering of their religion, Judaism, in the wake of the destruction of the temple and temple cult. We simply cannot understand the “why” of the gospels without acknowledging that documents forming the basis of all four gospels took shape against this backdrop and in response to it. Because of the dangers posed by Rome, the New Testament writings do not make explicit reference to these events. Instead, they refer to the war in countless symbolic and roundabout ways.
Who do the stories in and around Matthew 14 tell people to be? They say to be faith-full, or trusting, in the midst of uncertainty. Likely everyone close to the Matthean community knew people who had been killed. They knew suffering. The stories of Matthew 14 say: trust and be faithful; the way of Jesus—sent to us by God—can ultimately be trusted.
The reason I so like the why and who questions, is because they get beyond so many fruitless, anachronistic debates about the scriptures. They are interesting questions. And based on the answers, we gain insight into what the broader tradition is saying about living a worthy life, about being a certain kind of person. In various passages we may disagree with the conclusion of a particular author and his/her portrait of a worthy life. But if overall we embrace what the tradition has to say about a meaningful life, or about being an awake, Love- or God-filled person, we begin to be shaped by it in profound ways.
We don’t turn to the biblical texts as guidebooks, then. We simply start to be shaped by stories that resonate within our hearts, impacting how we see and hear what goes on in our lives thousands of years later. In this way, stories make us into certain kinds of people not by way of indoctrination, but by setting before us examples and scenarios that show rather than tell what a meaningful life entails. Gradually we begin to mirror that manner of being in our own days and hours. This is how stories work—whether novels or scriptural texts. There is always interpretation involved—starting at the level of language-translation, but also in how teachers add context to the story, filling in details not in the storyteller’s immediate aperture. But we do not have to resort to indoctrination for stories to have power. In fact, indoctrination saps stories of their power by turning them into moralistic formulas that engage the head but leave the heart untouched.
In absorbing stories like those in Matthew 14, reading them again and again, or year after year, we begin to be shaped by their outlook. We then start to recognize how, when we stay where our feet are planted in the moment, trusting the way will clear for us around the next bend, or perhaps the next bend after that, proceeding without all the answers, we often find faith and purposeful joy in the midst of struggles. But we don’t choose trust as a formula to get what we want. Despite our faithfulness, terrible things will occasionally happen. Instead, we trust restorative Love because that is who we have become, and that is the way we relate to the world, even in the bleakest of circumstances. This is a different approach than engaging with the text is a doctrinaire way, asserting that we trust because we know Jesus will step in and do what we wish. Such an interpretation makes a formula, or a “key,” out of Jesus that we can manipulate, as needed, in our lives. If we instead let these stories of trust amidst conflict and chaos have their way with us, allowing them to gradually hone our ability to open minds and hearts to possibilities outside of our view, and to step out in trusting relationship with Life, with Love, even when seas are choppy, we may begin to feel our anxieties dissipate. Even amidst chaos, even amidst a storm.
Tricia Gates Brown works as a writer, garden designer, and emotional wellness coach in Nehalem, Oregon. She holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. In 2015 she completed her first novel and the essay collection Season of Wonder, and is currently at work on her second novel. For more, see: triciagatesbrown.net
Image: Storm from Wikimedia