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4th Sunday after Epiphany: Love in the swamp

For this 4th Sunday after Epiphany the Vetus Ordo gives us the ultra-dramatic Gospel scene of the Apostles with the Lord in a boat being swamped by the waves during a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord was asleep. That’s the Gospel for Sunday. But this year I’m writing about the first reading, the Epistle, not the Gospel. So, too bad.

This is the part in Romans where Paul talks, again, about the Law and love. Seriously, if I have space, I’ll add a note or two about the Gospel also, but the deal is that you have to read this part first.

As always, context is important. Two Sundays ago we had Romans 12:6-16a. Last Sunday we had Romans 12:16b-21. This week we have Romans 13:8-10. Chapters 12-13 of Romans are primarily Paul’s ethical, moral teachings.

Brethren: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

The bulk of this is a recap of the second Tablet of the Decalogue from Exodus 20. The first Tablet concerned love of God and piety (eusébia), and the second, love of neighbor (diakaiosúne). Paul’s conclusion is, obviously, the take away. It would be familiar to Jews, because it is Leviticus 19:18, which we have looked at closely in my column on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost. But Paul is writing to Romans.

Paul got into controversies because he did not force Gentile converts to follow the Jewish Law of Moses in all its restrictive particulars. After all, whenever the People violated their covenant with God, God piled more laws onto them. So, some part of the Law was more foundational: the Ten Commandments. Paul communicated to the Romans that they as Christians did have to obey the Ten Commandments and that those Commandments were about more than not doing certain things. Since they are rooted in love, they also imply positive action.

In English, “love” can mean a range of things from a strong preference for spaghetti or fervor for a sports team, the attachment one might have for a cat, or the fog arising from hormones. In this passage, which is in Greek, Paul uses agape, the verb being agapáo. This love is more than a mere sentiment or emotion. It has a moral sense, which means it has implications for actions. Note that Paul affirms that love means not doing wrong to one’s neighbor, which the Decalogue affirms, but adds that which the Lord Himself underscored. We are to agapáo our neighbor as we agapao ourselves. For more on agape you might read through Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est. Among the jewels we find:

The Christian vocation is about right love. This is the heart of the Law. Paul may have included only the second Tablet of the Decalogue in his exhortation, but the precepts of the first Tablet are presupposed in the second. They are inextricably intertwined. Love of neighbor is for the sake of love of God and vice versa.

In Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est we read – and it is always hard to quote Benedict except at length because each paragraph is interconnected – something about a starting point of love, liturgical worship, which we must conclude is also the returning point, just as the Eucharist (which is LOVE) is the “fons et culmen” of Christian life, the “source and summit”.

I’ll stick this in, but you will do better to read it in context.

In the Church’s Liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives. He has loved us first and he continues to do so; we too, then, can respond with love. God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has “loved us first,” love can also blossom as a response within us.

In the gradual unfolding of this encounter, it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man’s potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God’s love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved.


Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.

Sometimes I suggest to people to try to look at those with whom they have difficulties through “resurrection glasses,” that is, try to picture them as God would have them be in the resurrection of the flesh and the happiness of the Beatific Vision. This is why He made us. Every one of us was made as individuals to love and to be loved.

I promised a bit about the Gospel from Matthew if I had space. Can I entrust to you now the joy of reading Benedict’s encyclical? It is so refreshing to read a papal document that doesn’t throw half the Church into a panic and the other half into paroxysms of self-affirmation.

Last week in Matthew we heard of the encounter of Jesus the Centurion, a pagan Gentile. It was a turning point of sorts. While the Lord’s mission began with the Jews, and even in the part of Galilee that was the “Galilee of the nations” whose history is connected to the gift of the Syrian King for assistance in building the Temple, at this point in the Synoptic Gospels, the Lord heads to pagan, Gentile territory.

In Matthew 8, the Lord is headed to the Hellenistic Decapolis, the “ten cities.” Immediately before our Mass pericope, Jesus instructs a scribe and disciple about the hardships inherent in discipleship. The implication is that they did not thereafter follow Jesus.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

They were crossing the Sea of Galilee, which is about eight miles across at its widest. The Sea of Galilee is known for its sudden storms. More context! Recall that this is the ancient world, a time when it was believers that evil spirits dwelt in waters. In Daniel 7:3 we read of the prophet’s vision of “four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.” Isaiah wrote of Leviathan, “the fleeing … twisting serpent” and God will “slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Is 27:1). God had to tame the waters in Genesis 1. Waters destroyed the world at the time of Noah. Moreover, it was night. Night in the ancient world was really dark, not like our semi-illuminated, light polluted skies anywhere close to a populated area. It’s black. The winds are howling. All three Synoptic Gospels say that the boat was being swamped with waves. Despite some of the Apostles being professional fisherman and boat handlers, they are terrified.

Jesus was asleep.

You will naturally make the connection between the Lord calming the waters and God calming the waters in Genesis! “What sort of man is this?”, they asked. He is the man who is God.

Moreover, the Greek word for rebuke, epitimáo, is the same as that used when Jesus spoke of lack of faith as He exorcized a violently possessed boy in 17:14-20 and in many other passages involving the casting out of demons… and his “rebuking” of Peter (Mark 8:33).

Notice what the Lord said: “O men of little faith” and “Why are you afraid?” It seems to me that this is the transitional hook with the Lord’s encounter with the two would-be followers just before they started to cross the sea.

And a scribe came up and said to him,

“Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

The Lord crossed from the region where he should have garnered the most believers and went to the place where one might have expected Him to gather fewer. Before and during this movement, He touches on discipleship, noting that it is hard. He also came down hard on the Apostles, who had already spent much time with Him and seen what He could do. In the parallel account in Mark 4, this is a point at which the disciples begin more and more to fail.

Let us never be presumptuous about how wonderful and devout we are. We move forward on this “march up country” like pilgrim soldiers in the Enemy’s land, depending on grace even more than elbow grease.  We must stay close to the Church even when she seems swamped, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger described in the Stations of the Cross he wrote for 2005.

Can we ever forget the sight of the dying John Paul II watching on his television as Ratzinger lead the Way of the Cross at night at the Colosseum?

Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.

If I mentioned what immediately preceded our Gospel, I should mention what immediately follows. When they got to the other shore, they were beset by two demoniacs. Jesus exorcized them and sent their many demons into a herd of swine, which rushed into the sea and died. It must have been a hideous sight and sound. I can’t help but think that it was the scriptural foundation for the establishment of conferences of bishops or perhaps the paradigm for the present German synodal (“walking together”) path. I’ll leave that to scholars of ecclesiology and wrap it up here.

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