Thought for the day
While it is not comfortable, to be in crisis is probably the natural state of the Christian project. Even in Jesus’ day: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26) Likewise, quite early on, the story of the storm at sea was read as a kind of allegory, representing the (later) church undergoing trials. The natural feeling of being abandoned is captured in the raw emotion of Mark’s account.
Mark also tells us where to seek help: Who then is this? Like the disciples, we have no full understanding of Jesus and yet, like them, to him we turn.
Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small. Be with me. (Breton Fisherman's Prayer)
Mark 4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
This story is found in Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25 and also here in Mark 4:35-41. It provides an instructive example of a Jesus story being used for different purposes in the Gospels. In Matthew, the theme is really discipleship while in Mark faith in Jesus is the focus. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive; nevertheless, each evangelist has his eye on different dimensions of the story. Mark focuses on faith and on the identity of Jesus.
Kind of writing
As often in Mark, this story is a chreia, this time an action chreia with important words attached. Jesus’ question and the disciple’s wondering are keys to the text. At the level of the gospel, this is a symbolic tale designed to challenge and assist a church in crisis.
Old Testament background
In the biblical tradition, the sea, a mighty force of nature, was seen symbolically as chaotic and destructive. Of the many examples, perhaps these two might serve to illustrate what is meant. First of all, from today’s first reading:
Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? (Job 38:8-11)
There is a close alignment between the gospel story and a scene in the marvellous Psalm 107:
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” (Psalms 107:23-32)
New Testament foreground
It is often thought that behind the series of story in Mark 4-8, lies two chains or catenae of sources, which might have contained the following:
a. The Stilling of the Storm (4:35-41)
b. The Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20)
c. The Woman with the Haemorrhage (5:25-34)
d. Jairus’ daughter (5:21-23, 35-43)
e. Feeding of the 5,000 (6:34-44, 53)
a. Jesus Walks on the Sea (6:45-51)
b. The Blind Man of Bethsaida (8:22-26)
c. The Syro-phoenician Woman
d. The Deaf-Mute (7:32-37)
e. Feeding of the 4,000 (8:1-10)
It is commonly thought that the three miracles at the start, in any case, lead to a climax: (1) authority over nature (and chaos); (2) authority over the devils (and evil); (3) authority over sickness and even life (life and death). The question asked at the end of our reading is the question to ask: “Who then is this?”
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
Verse 35 Notice the time is given twice, a literary “trait” of Mark. The initiative here belongs to Jesus.
Verse 36 Here, it is the disciples who take Jesus with them, unlike in Matthew, who “corrects” Mark at this point. The other boats mentioned have no role in the story and are omitted in Matthew’s version of the story.
Verse 37 A quite dramatic storm, conveyed really in the verbs “arose”, “beat” and “swamped”. There is something of Psalm 107 in this description.
Verse 38 The details of Mark (stern, cushion) are omitted by both Matthew and Luke (who doesn’t even say the Lord was asleep, although he wakes up!). In Mark, Jesus is called “teacher” whereas in Matthew he is called “Lord” and in Luke “Master”. It is appropriate for Mark, who underlines the teaching of Jesus, although he gives us actually very little teaching. The demand of the disciples is very direct, even rude. This is softened by both Matthew (“Lord, save us! We are perishing!”) and Luke (“Master, Master, we are perishing!”). This is an important moment for interpretation. In what sense could the community of Mark be said to be “perishing”? If the context of writing is Rome under Nero or the Holy Land during the Jewish War, then the members of the community are literally perishing, that is being killed in the persecution. The threat of martyrdom puts tremendous pressure on faith, which may also be said to be perishing, as people abandon the faith for fear of being put to death. This verse then permits a large symbolic / allegorical reading of the passage. The chief concern is not so much a miracle of Jesus but the situation of the church (the disciples in the boat), under persecution (perishing) and being told that they need faith (“Have you still no faith”). If only they could see the identity of Jesus as crucified messiah, their faith in Jesus would help them (“Who then is this?”). In this way, Mark receives a Jesus tradition and makes it relevant to his church at the time of writing.
Verse 39 Only now are we told that Jesus woke up. The words he uses are significant: Be silent is used only once more, this time dealing with the a demon. “But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”” (Mark 1:25). The effect is immediate and beautifully expressed in Greek where “dead calm” is expressed onomatopoeically as “galēnē megalē”.
Verse 40 The blunt question “Have you no faith” is also softened by Matthew (“you of little faith”) and Luke (“Where is your faith?”). Mark can be very stark and direct in his polemic. The real issue in Mark really is “having no faith” and it is linked to a failure to penetrate the true identity of Jesus as Messiah.
Verse 41 Awe and amazement are typical reactions to Jesus in Mark. Usually they “go” nowhere, except in the case of the disciples who do, eventually, make a tortuous and stumbling journey towards faith. Finally, they ask the “right” question about the identity of this figure. Even after an initial correct reply in Mark 8:27 there is still a distance to go, as we can see from Mark 8-10.
Pointers for prayer
1. The image of a boat in a stormy sea is a symbol of life in difficult times and can represent inner turmoil, anxiety and high emotions. When you have been in such circumstances, perhaps a “Jesus person” came to your assistance and calmed you down? Recall that person with gratitude.
2. The image can also be applied to a family, a community, a parish, or any other group. Remember people who have had a gift of bringing peace to troubled situations.
3. The significance of miracles in the Gospels is that they show Jesus as one who brings God’s power to bear on human need and suffering. Have there been times when you have been a channel for this healing power of God, holding a crying child in your arms, calming the anxiety of a friend, or being a peacemaker in a group to which you belong?
In the beginning, O God, your word subdued the chaos; in the fullness of time you sent Jesus, your Son, to rebuke the forces of evil and bring forth a new creation.
By that same power, transform all our fear into faith and awe in your saving presence.
We ask this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.