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Rebuke, revelation, and redemption: St. Peter falters on the water

On the Readings for Sunday, August 13, 2023

"Christ walking on the sea" by Amédée Varint (1818-83) [Wikipedia]

• 1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a
• Ps 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
• Rom. 9:1-5
• Mt 14:22-23

Recently, I led a Bible study through the Book of Proverbs. It is, of course, filled with many challenging sayings, some of which are too easily passed over before their depth and insight can be fully appreciated.

One such proverb comes to mind in reading today’s Gospel: “Better is an open rebuke than a love that remains hidden” (Prov 27:5). Such a statement runs counter to the dominant culture of our day, which insists, first, that any and all “love”—whether really loving or not—declare itself from the rooftops (or one’s Facebook page) and, second, that rebuke comes from those who unloving, rigid, and needlessly judgmental. But this proverb indicates that real love sometimes compels a necessary rebuke.

How so? The answer can be found in the famous story of Peter walking on water and then sinking in dramatic fashion. In fact, a connection can be seen between three essentials: rebuke, revelation, and redemption. A proper rebuke, or reprimand, is never an end in itself. And when it comes from God, it is a grace meant for our growth in understanding and the attainment of salvation.

It appears that Jesus wished to test the faith of the apostles, for he “made the disciples get into a boat” to go to the other side of the lake while he spent time alone in prayer. Surely he knew the storm was coming; surely he knew the distressed state of the disciples. The boat was being “tossed”—or, more literally, “harassed” and “tortured” by the winds and rain. Darkness and chaos reigned, as they seemingly did before God separated light from darkness in the very beginning (cf. Gen 1:2). The fourth watch of the night was between three and six in the morning, so the disciples had been caught in the storm for several hours when Jesus came toward them. Exhausted and unnerved, they were further terrified at the sight of Christ, thinking he was a ghost.

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The phrase “it is I” (ego eimi) can also be translated as “I AM”; it is an implicit declaration of divinity, harkening back to Yahweh’s revelation to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:14). Peter, the leader of the group, asked for the Lord’s command to come to him. Whereas Yahweh had told Moses, “Come no nearer!” (Ex 3:5), Jesus responded to Peter’s request by simply saying, “Come.” Moses needed to see and know the power of God who is completely Other and Holy. Peter, who already believed in God, needed to see and know the power of Jesus who is completely divine and human, approachable because he is the unique God-man.

Peter, ever impulsive and filled with faith, stepped out of the boat and began walking toward Jesus. It’s easy to fixate on Peter’s moment of fear and to overlook that Peter did actually walk on water and that he did so because of his faith. After all, as Peter faltered, Jesus did not grab his hand and say, “O you of no faith!” As St. Jerome wrote of this story: “Peter is found to be of ardent faith at all times. … he believes he can do by the will of the Master what the latter could do by nature.”

But Peter’s faith was still lacking. He needed to be rebuked so he could be see more clearly and be redeemed more completely. Two other occasions come to mind. Having declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Peter (wrongly!) rebuked his Master for prophetically announcing his approaching Passion; he was then rebuked soundly by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt 16:16-23). And even before he denied Jesus three times, Peter was rebuked for his hubristic declarations of courage (Matt 26:33-35, 75).

The revelation in each instance was the same: the true nature and power of the King and his Kingdom. Loved perfectly, Peter was rebuked openly so he could walk without fear and witness without faltering.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the August 7, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. During present fearful Darkness and storm we press forward, falter like Peter. Carl Olson separates Rebuke for “no faith” from “little faith”. Peter indeed walked on water during a storm but faltered. Faith was not lost in Peter but weakened. Christ seems at this specific moment in Church history to be speaking to me individually, and the rest of us individually. The Gospel Word is not at all historically confined as some devious detractors contend – to pray that he strengthen our weakened faith that we continue to press forward. Witness to that faith so needed in a world given to falsehood and self indulgence. Despite Peter’s subsequent monumental failure at the moment of truth Christ graces him once again instructing that he now strengthen his brothers. That is, once he recovers. He is still weak, disheartened. Like ourselves when we’re at the point of giving up on ourselves. Although Christ doesn’t give up on us, rather because of his inexpressible love presses us to press forward.

  2. We Catholics are certainly being put to the test these days! Like Peter, the Lord is calling me to go out on the waves. But if I take my eyes off of Christ and just look at the storm, down I’ll go! Good thing Our Lord is a Life Preserver.

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