Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Pollock explores the parallels between Peter and Elijah.
Elijah and Peter were servants of God and men of faith. In the Scriptures people of faith were often tested, in order to strengthen their faith. Elijah was a prophet of God, had been long in the service of God and was nearing the end of his ministry. His was the difficult task of prophesying in Israel in the time of King Ahab and his pagan queen, Jezebel.
He told God that he had failed. Ahab was indifferent to the God of Israel; Jezebel promoted the cult of pagan gods. The altars of Israel’s God had been destroyed, many of the people of God had apostatised, all the prophets had been killed, and only he had survived. God instructed him to go and spend the night in a cave on Mount Horeb.Next morning Elijah encountered God in a very terrifying way. Wind, earthquake and fire are among the most destructive forces in nature, and greatly feared, as they bring death. In the Hebrew scriptures they are associated with an appearance of God, and God himself was in them; but in Elijah’s encounter, God was not in the wind, or the earthquake or the fire. Later in the passage God asks Elijah, ‘What are you doing here?’ This could be a reproach. Elijah had shown a lack of faith, a lack of trust in God by abandoning his mission of prophecy in Israel, a mission commanded by God. God would not abandon his prophet.
When the wind, the earthquake and the fire had gone, all that could be heard was the sound of a gentle breeze The Hebrew word for wind is also the word for spirit; Elijah was being told that God can be found not only in great terrifying forces of nature, but also through his unseen government of events. The sound of the gentle breeze is the Spirit of God, strengthening the man of faith, confirming him in his work as a prophet of God.
Peter was a disciple of the Christ; later he would be Peter the apostle. He is the best known of the apostles, always prominent, often impetuous. As a disciples he was a learner; he walked with Jesus, heard his teachings, saw his miracles. Just before the episode in today’s Gospel passage he witnessed the feeding of the five thousand. As he heard and saw, his faith in the Christ grew; but faith sometimes needed testing and strengthening.
Like Elijah, Peter and the other disciples experienced something of the destructive power of nature; they were exposed to a heavy sea and a strong wind, and were in danger of death. Jesus and the disciples had become separated. Jesus, who had withdrawn to the hills to pray, came to them, walking on the water, showing his mastery of nature. Peter may have wanted to be nearer to Jesus, asked him, possibly impetuously, to bid him come to him, to which he received the answer ‘come’. And Peter walked, but soon began to sink.
The passage seems to suggest that Peter’s difficulty was not with the sea but with the wind. He asked the saviour to save him, which he did. Peter, like Elijah, was reproached for his lack of faith. Did this mean that had Peter continued to walk on the waves he would had reached the Christ, or did it mean that he doubted that Jesus would save him? The disciples responded by declaring that Jesus was truly the Son of God.
Peter the disciple, like Elijah the prophet, had learned something important, that to be a servant of God demanded trust and faith. Without these no apostolate would succeed.