Matthew 14:22-33, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Have you ever drowned? I actually drowned when I was in grade 4. Our dad had bought us new diving goggles for an upcoming beach trip. So, kuya and I decided to try them out at a neighbor’s swimming pool. It was the first time I had ever seen through goggles under water and the sight took my breath away, first figuratively, later, literally. The crystal lucidity of the water was mesmerizing so I ventured towards the deeper part of the pool. After a few maladroit strokes, I got tired. So I decided to stand up and take a breath. Too late. I was out too deep to stand up. I started to drown. You drink a lot of water when you drown. Your ears fill with water, your nose. You try to swim out of it but no matter how you flail and kick and keep your head above the water, you get nowhere, you “lose ground.” As I bobbed up and down for what seemed an eternity, I felt at some point that I might as well just give up and just die. Whereupon kuya, thanks to our new goggles, he saw me from under the water, and pulled me back to safety. See, I drowned because I was innocent (fourth grade) and curious (new goggles!), as well as stubborn and stupid (I’d swum in that pool many times, I knew where it was dangerously too deep for me). For many weeks, I had recurring nightmares. But I kept it all from dad and mom. Kuya never ever mentioned anything about it, not to my parents, not even to me. We let the memory sink underwater to die there.
When we feel we’re drowning in problems, we often try to make sense of the increasingly senseless situation. So, we’ve come up with a nice formula that helps console us: pagsubok ng Diyos; sinusubukan ako ng Diyos kung hanggang saan ako mananalig sa kanya. Pagsubok ng Diyos gives us a foothold when we feel we’re losing ground. For some strange reason, it pulls many of us through when we think that God is only “testing” us by leaving us to drown for a while. We seem to get a breath of air when we think that God is “experimenting” on us by doing nothing to save us while we’re flailing and kicking, yet getting nowhere.
Now if pagsubok ng Diyos has pulled you through the worst times of your life, I have no right to dissuade you from changing that formula. But the image of a Diyos who is nanunubok—it has not sat well with my own experience of a deeply loving, willingly saving God. Because God is our creator, he knows us better than we know even ourselves. So, why must he “test” our faith when he already knows how far we would trust him, or how soon we would despair? Alam na niya ‘yon, Diyos siya! Only the unsure and the insecure test their loved ones for their faith and love. God, however, has absolutely no need to test our faith and love, even less by conjuring senseless suffering, unleashing it upon us, and monitoring our spiritual tenacity. I often say in class that senseless suffering in the world is the consequence of either our sinning or the sinful actions of other people, or both. There is meaningful suffering we willingly go through for people we love, yes, sure. But senseless suffering? That can never come from God. We bring it upon ourselves when we overindulge our curiosity or become stubborn and stupid. But senseless suffering can also come from greed, the violence, the murderousness of other people, which unfortunately comes around and affect us and makes us suffer. Or it can be both. The point is, senseless suffering can never be pagsubok ng Diyos. In fact, the opposite is true. God is always present, God is always there to keep us from drowning. And when we do drown, all the more that God is there to save us. Since time immemorial, God has always been a saving God. But we don’t always want to be saved, do we?
That dark and stormy evening, way off shore, Jesus appeared to his frightened friends and the first thing he said to them? “Take courage. It is I; do not be afraid.” What did Peter say? “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Who, then, was testing whom? Jesus wasn’t testing Peter’s faith. He said, “Come!” Jesus actually trusted Peter’s faith. No, it was Peter who tested the Lord’s sincerity. Worse, he asked Jesus to make him walk on water, something only a God could do. That was not just a test, therefore. That was also a dare. Peter dared the Son of God to give him equal power to do what only a God can do—walk on water—so he could finally trust the Lord…this, in spite of seeing that a miracle was already happening—Jesus was already walking on water!—and in spite of the Lord saying, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
It’s not so much God who is nanunubok, sisters and brothers. We’re the ones who often doubt God’s faithfulness, so we rely on our own powers to get what we want. When all is well with our lives, we tend to push our luck, we tend to waste our blessings. Then we go to the deep end…where we lose ground and start to sink senselessly. But our God ever good and ever saving, he is always walking on water, keeping watch over us, bailing us out. We really ought to give God more credit than saying, “Sinusubukan ako ng Diyos.” It’s just not true. It’s just not fair.
While I was writing this homily, I stopped to text kuya. “Thank you, Kuyz, for saving me when I was drowning in the neighbor’s pool.” He texted back—which he rarely does: “I don’t even remember, Nel. Wow.” So, I texted, “You saved my life, Kuyz. I’ve often thanked God and thank God for you.” He texted back, an even rarer thing. “You’re welcome. Anytime. (Laughing face emoticon.)”