Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord save me!”
The second time that we meet Simon in Matthew’s gospel, he is once again, in a boat. This time it is in the early morning hours, and he is with his fellow disciples. This time the water is stormy, and the disciples are probably working to stay calm and perhaps get to shore as quickly as possible. We may even posit that they were unnerved during this experience, as when they see Jesus walking towards them on the water, they become “terrified.” (Mt 14:26) Simon decides to set his fears aside and do a little test. If this is really Jesus and if he is really walking on the water, then it will be no problem for Simon to do so as well. So here Simon goes. He gets permission to test Jesus and he gets out on the water. Things are going great until the nostalgia of the moment passes and reality sinks in. The wind is blasting and the waves raging. And down goes Simon into the water crying out to Jesus for help. Jesus, already prepared, rescues Simon without incident and gently chides Simon for his “little faith” and his doubt. (Mt 14:31)
This is one of those stories where we find ourselves perhaps having a moment of pity for Simon or perhaps we jump right to the obvious message of the story which is that when we doubt Jesus, we sink. But if that is all we take from this story, then we miss out on how we can really apply this moment to the pain and suffering in our lives.
Let us start from the beginning, where all good stories begin. Simon was stressed. Even for a seasoned fisherman, being stuck in the dark in a boat with a storm is not a place that I would want to be. Likewise, being overwhelmed at work, caring for sick kids, experiencing the loss of a loved one, suffering from mental illness and dying of cancer are not places that any of us want to be either. But every single one of us can relate to what Simon is facing here. And what do we do when we are stressed out and suffering? We turn to God with full trust and summon the courage to step out on the waves and face our fears. We determine that we are going to find our Lord and Savior in the suffering. Just like Simon. We test Jesus and we go for it. But what happened to Simon, happens to us. When the suffering does not end, when the realization that our loved one is truly gone, when we cannot pay our bills, when our children continue to be sick, and when our depression turns from days into years, we start to sink. We take our eyes away from Jesus and we get consumed by our suffering, the fear of the wind and the waves consumes us. And we start to drown. Just like Simon.
Oh, us of little faith. Why do we doubt? We doubt because in this life we will have suffering. In this life we will be in pain. And somehow, we are never really ready for that. We are quick to turn to Jesus in prayer, but just as quick to sink when we perceive that our prayer is not answered. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, off of the cross, we will get consumed by the challenges of this life.
We have to summon our courage to prepare ourselves to really work to apply this lesson to our lives. This story is not just about eager Simon. This lesson is not that we just need to trust Jesus. The lesson from this story in the life of Simon Peter is how we need to trust. We need to keep our eyes always fixed on Jesus and the cross. If we are focused on Jesus and the cross, the wind and the waves of this life will be nothing more than noises in the background. Easy to say, of course, and harder to do, but doing is what must be done.
But let us press on even more. When we are suffering, whatever form that is for us in our lives, turning our eyes away from Jesus and the cross looks like alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, gambling, stress eating, and despair. When we let our obsessive worry thoughts consume our days, we have taken our eyes off the Lord. When we turn to anger and stop praying, we have taken our eyes off the Lord. When we lay in bed all day because we are so depressed, we have taken our eyes off the Lord. When we stop going to confession and Mass, and our venial sins and perhaps mortal sins accumulate, we have taken our eyes off the Lord.
Turning our eyes to Jesus does not eliminate the wind and the waves. It did not for Simon either. But when we focus on Jesus and the cross, we have strength through him as well as our perfect example for how to endure the sufferings of this life. What did Simon do when he started to sink? He cried out to Jesus for help. When we start to sink, we need to cry out to Jesus for help. We must not get stuck in thinking that because Jesus did not take away our suffering that he did not hear or answer our prayer. Jesus is not at our every beck and call when we need suffering removed. Our sufferings in this life are for us to bear with our Lord and Savior. Jesus is not a one-way ticket out of our suffering.
Once we know this, once we accept this, we can keep our eyes on Jesus and the cross as we bear our sufferings and as we endure our trials. We may have to keep turning to Jesus and turning away from the wind and waves of our suffering again and again as we endure. But this is the way. Eyes on the Lord. Eyes on the cross. This story of Simon is so important to help us live out our suffering. The imagery is so beautiful and powerful, if we take the time to really visualize what is happening and if we really take time to see why this story is preserved in Matthew’s gospel.