The Sunday lectionary reading for the Ninth Sunday of Trinity in Year A is Matt 14.22–33, Matthew’s instinctive account of Jesus’ walking across the water and Peter’s response to it. I am finding this recent, sustained immersion in Matthew’s narrative very interesting. We have often noted how Matthew’s accounts are more compressed than the other gospels, particularly Mark, and that he compensates for that by including additional episodes. But the compression itself actually gives the narratives an intensity and power that I had not expected.
In the previous episode, Jesus has been seeking solitude (with his closest followers) after hearing the news of John the Baptist’s death, with all its discouragement and foreboding. But, just as he has postponed the urgent task of responding to Jairus’ daughter in order to attend to the needs of a woman in Matthew 9, so he postpones the meeting of his own urgent need to respond to the desires of the crowd.
He took command in feeding them, and now he takes command in dismissing both them and the disciples, so that he will be truly alone. There is one fascinating detail here: once all have eaten and are satisfied, Jesus ‘immediately’ dismisses them. This pericope is the only place in the whole of Matthew where Jesus acts ‘immediately’—a contrast to Mark where the term occurs ten times in his first chapter! Jesus has been postponing his own need for solitude and reflection, and his desire to be alone with his Heavenly Father can wait no longer. This time, the phrase κατ᾿ ἰδίαν ‘by himself’ means that he is, physically, truly alone.
In Matt 14.15, evening (that is, the time after sunset but before complete darkness; compare Mark 1.32) was approaching and this prompts the debate about feeding the crowd. Now, evening has come; some considerable time must have passed, so R T France translates this ‘well into the night’. This need not make seeing the boat impossible if the darkness is moonlit.