Why Does Jesus Say That Peter Has Little Faith?

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Matthew 14:22-33

During their journey across the Sea of Galilee, the disciples find their boat at the mercy of a savage windstorm. Waves toss the boat and a wind threatens to capsize it. In the midst of the chaos, a ghastly figure emerges from the darkness: a man who is walking on water.

The disciples are terrified.

“It’s a ghost,” they whisper to one another.

“Take heart; it is I,” the figure, Jesus, says. “Do not be afraid.”

Despite the thrashing waves, Peter calls out to Jesus, saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” Jesus says.

So, Peter leaps out of the boat and onto the tumultuous waves. He walks across the waves to Jesus—only to notice the wind biting into his flesh. Stricken by fear, Peter begins to sink. He reaches out to Christ, who, true to his nature, saves Peter. However, Christ also has some harsh words for Peter: “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Why does Jesus rebuke Peter in this way? After all, Peter leaps out of the boat and onto the waves; many of us would be too fearful to do even that much! Shouldn’t Jesus say, “Nice try! You did much better than the other eleven disciples; they just stayed in the boat!”

Many of us have heard the following explanation from pastors, church members, and leading Christian authors: “This story is a metaphor about the Christian life: Peter began to sink when he looked away from Jesus; therefore, we must always be sure to keep our eyes on Christ regardless of the storm that rages around us.”

However, this isn’t what scripture says about this passage.

As Christians, we need to be careful of the tool we use to interpret scripture. In the free world, we have many tools available to us: churches, seminaries, best-selling Christian authors. Turning to these is fairly simple and painless. However, in many countries these tools are scarce—the very act of owning a Bible is dangerous in and of itself. These Christians may not have a church to attend, or a seminary from which to graduate. Does this mean that they are disadvantaged?

Of course not.

Scripture emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is our teacher. Through baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, along with the promise that the Spirit will open to us all of the scriptures. Through the Holy Spirit, scripture interprets itself. What does this mean? Often, it means that as we continue to read the Bible daily, throughout our lives, the Holy Spirit will bring to mind scriptures that we have read and help us to understand how they all fit together.

Take this passage of scripture, for example.

Whenever we read and turn to something other than scripture to answer our questions, there is a high likelihood that we will miss the point of the passage. Did you notice, for example, that our go-to answer for this particular passage (“Peter fell when he took his eyes off Jesus, so we must learn to keep our eyes on him in stormy circumstances”) is actually more focused on what the scripture instructs us to do rather than what the scripture reveals about Christ?
To whom should we turn, then? The Holy Spirit, of course. Allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us means that when we run across a difficult question—and no other scripture comes to mind—we content ourselves with bracketing the question for the present and continue to read. When we do this, we discover that, through the Holy Spirit, the Bible always answers its own questions. Therefore, we must learn to be patient and to trust that the Holy Spirit will eventually answer our questions.

In this particular case, the Holy Spirit answers our question in Matthew 15.

After travelling from Tyre to Sidon, Jesus and his disciples find themselves being followed by a Canaanite woman who shouts, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!” Jesus does not respond to her plea. However, the woman continues to follow and shout. Eventually, the disciples run out of patience.

“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,” they beg.

So, Jesus turns to the woman and tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman is not deterred. She kneels before him and continues to beg for help.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” Christ says. This is no compliment. Such words would have pricked a sore place in any Gentile who chose to live among Jews. However, the woman’s response shows no trace of anger: “Yet, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus then praises the woman: “Woman, great is your faith!”
When we read these words, we should be reminded of Christ’s response to Peter: “Oh you of little faith!” We should also wonder about this: What is the difference that Jesus sees between the two? After all, Peter walked on water; all the woman did was continue to talk!

To understand this, we must first understand what the word “faith” means. In a Biblical sense, faith is confidence that God will always act according to his character as revealed in Scripture—action that we welcome in our lives. Faith is not only believing in God or trusting that he has forgiven us our sins, but being confident that Christ’s own character is fully operative in the world and in our own life.

Believing in God is only the smallest part of what it means to have faith. In fact, you can “believe in God” without having faith in him. You can even admit that Jesus Christ is the son of God, without having faith. Having faith requires (1) knowing God’s character, and (2) trusting—and welcoming—that he will continue to act, in the world and in our own lives, according to his character revealed in scripture.

One of the clearest glimpses we receive of this in the Bible is the Psalms. In the Psalms, children of God are constantly confessing their struggles and the great power of God in one breath. They have confidence that God is who he says he is—all powerful, all knowing, all-benevolent—and are therefore confused by the suffering that they experience. God has honored their faith by counting their prayers among his holy revelation.

You could spend all your days in church and all your days in prayer without having faith in God. In fact, our prayers can become a practice of losing faith if we pray to God for things that are contrary to his character. Like the martyrs, we should cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10), rather than, “What did I do that you wish for me to suffer?”

What does all this have to do with the difference between Peter and the Canaanite woman? Quite a lot.

The more faith we have, the more certain we are that the character of God (which is revealed to us in scripture through the Holy Spirit) will always be his character, and the more we welcome his acting according to that character in our lives. Furthermore, we will learn to hold God to this character—just like the Canaanite woman.

Despite possibly never having read the scriptures (due her status as an “outsider” or “foreigner”), this woman knew something about Jesus. She had heard things about who he was and of what he was capable (otherwise, she would not be quite as persistent in begging him for help). Despite being ignored and rebuffed by Christ, this woman continues to believe the little she has heard about him and his character. The woman trusts—despite all evidence to the contrary—that (1) he is capable of healing her daughter and that (2) he would be willing to heal her daughter.

And it turns out that the little this woman knows about Christ is right. Jesus not only listens to her and heals her daughter—he praises her faith. Despite knowing nothing about the Bible, this woman has faith.

Peter, on the other hand, has spent years with Jesus. He has listened to his Lord speak, watched him heal the incurable, and calm storms. Peter knows the scriptures well and has been taught God’s character. Yet when the time comes, Peter ultimately trusts the fierce wind and doubts Jesus’ character to protect him in the midst of it.

This is the difference between the two.

God is not impressed by moments of great trust or extreme risk in your life. He is not even impressed by how much you trusted him in the past. Instead, he is interested in whether you will trust him—and what the scripture has told you about his character—in the next moment.

This entry was posted in Lectionary Year A and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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