It would not be surprising to find Peter right at the bottom of the faith hierarchy. We never associate Peter with faith, do we? At least we have been taught not to do that. We remember Peter only when we talk of his denial of Jesus (Luke 22:54-62), or when we talk about his inability to comprehend Jesus’ mission (Mark 8:31-33), or when we speak on the pitfalls of lack of faith and fear and doubt. At any rate, we have to crack our heads to portray Peter in a positive manner. Much of our inability to see him in good light is because of what has been passed down to us by the Christian faithful. And we have uncritically internalized those interpretations believing that doing so would define and heighten our Christian fidelity.
I’m reminded of a scene from the recent Tamil movie “Vikram Vedha.” Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi), a gangster, tells Vikram (Ranganathan Madhavan), an up-front cop, “You don’t need me to be a bad person to project yourself as a good person.” There is much truth to this. If Peter had a chance to speak to the Church today, he would probably say the same. We tend to absolve our shortcomings by casting them all on Peter – make ourselves feel good by tagging him with ‘unchristian’ labels. How impious a form our piety has conveniently taken!
Coming to the text, the narrative in Matthew 14:22-33 is well known. Jesus’ disciples are in the boat fighting the wind and the waves. Suddenly they notice someone walking towards them and they cry out in fear, saying, “It is a ghost!” And almost immediately, the person identifies himself as Jesus and tells them not to be afraid. We all know what follows next. Peter gets out of the boat and walks towards Jesus, but because of the fear and doubt that grips him, he begins to sink in the water. Jesus, however, miraculously comes to his aid. Peter’s faith in Jesus wobbles, just the way the boat wobbled under the strong wind. Peter, then, is a classic example of a faith that we should not have.
This has been our only understanding of Peter in this text, right? But why does Peter have to bear the brunt of our lack of understanding of the text? Think about this: would we have done better than him had we been out there? Would we have walked on water without a care in the world singing “Oh Happy Day?” Would we have even thought of getting out of the boat in the name of faith? If the answer is no, what then causes us to constantly engage in a negative portrayal of Peter? Let me try to put things in perspective.
The disciples were in the boat and were filled with fear. Though all of them thought that the person walking on the water was a ghost (and perhaps even after Jesus’ assurance), only Peter decided to venture out into the sea. Was that an act of faithlessness? Peter dared to step into the unknown – that is faith. When Jesus said to Peter, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” I suppose it is more of an affirmation of that ‘little’ faith that the other disciples quite evidently lacked, than an accusation at the lack of ‘more’ faith. Therefore, Peter’s (level of) faith is evident in his willingness to step out on the water, not the distance he covered on water.
Can there be faith without doubt? I doubt the existence (and continuance) of such a faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is. Faith’s best companion and critique is doubt. I am reminded of a line from the movie DOUBT, where Meryl Streep says, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” This is why I believe doubt is an important clog in our faith journey. Peter’s faith may have been little, but it was big enough to move him out of the boat. His faith may have been little, but it was big enough to recognize that the ghost was actually Jesus and therefore called out to him saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” His faith may have been little, but it caught the attention of Jesus. His faith may have been little, but it made Jesus act when he cried, “Lord, save me!” His faith may have been little, but it was enough to make him do the undoable. The text informs us that when Peter and Jesus entered the boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” But Peter knew that truth out on the sea. While the disciples merely witnessed the “Son of God,” Peter experienced the “Son of God.” That is what little faith can do.
If we still hold on to the view that Peter lacked faith, what about the remaining disciples? Men without faith? Men with great faith choosing not to exercise it? I believe it is better to experience doubt when walking in faith than to allow fear or “blind faith” cause us to remain in our safe spaces and prevent us from taking a step into the unknown. While the disciples remained in the boat, Peter dared to be different. While the disciples remained in the boat, Peter walked on water. And he did it with little faith. Do we have enough faith to see what little faith can do?