The lectionary reading for Trinity 3 in Year B is Mark 4.35–41, the account of Jesus calming the storm. It is a fabulous story both full of little eye-witness details, and yet at the same time impossible to read without feeling its symbolic significance. Unlike Matthew, Mark does not bridge the literal story to its symbolic reading, but the story is so vivid he can leave that to us!
Although there is a clear link at the beginning of this story with the teaching in parables that has gone before (‘On that day…’) our chapter divisions hinder rather than help us here. This is the beginning of a quite long section, between the teaching of chapter 4 and the next section of teaching in chapter 7, when Jesus is at the centre of a serious of dramatic and dynamic miracle stories. This section includes six of Jesus’ best-known miracles in the gospels: the calming of the storm; the deliverance of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’ daughter; the healing of the woman with an issue of blood; the feeding of the 5,000; and Jesus walking on the water.
Together, these stories depict Jesus as dynamic and powerful, the agent of God’s miraculous power.
The general impression that the segment Mark 4.35–6.56 makes is that Jesus is a highly successful worker of deeds, wondrous and beyond normal human ability (Hedrick, quoted in Mary Anne Beavis, Paideia, p 88).
And yet there are two complementary themes that are present throughout. The first is the fear and unbelief of both the crowds and the disciples. Despite the strong distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the first part of Mark 4, being on the inside does not actually mean that the disciples understand Jesus any better than the crowds. Fear is repeatedly presented as the opposite of faith, and in contrast to this Jesus repeatedly enjoins people to ‘have faith’ or ‘believe’, whilst commending those who have ‘strong faith’ (Mark 5.34).
The second complementary theme is the humanity of Jesus, who is tired from a busy day, frustrated by the disciples’ lack of understanding, and yet is also able to turn from the pressure of the crowds to attend to a particular individual before him.
Like many other stories in this section of the gospel, Mark’s version is longer and more details than either Matthew’s or Luke’s. The account in Matthew 8.24–27 is part of a carefully structured ‘ministry’ section of three sets of three incidents; Jesus’ teaching parables about the kingdom do not appear until Matthew’s third ‘teaching’ section in chapter 13. Luke follows Mark slightly more closely, in having this episode in Luke 8.22–25 following on from the parabolic teaching, but with the episode about Jesus’ true family intervening rather than earlier as it is in Mark (and later in Matthew).
It is worth noting from the outside the range of details that Mark includes, which the other two accounts omit.
- It is the same day as his parabolic teaching about the kingdom.
- They set out in the evening.
- Jesus suggests they go ‘across to the other side’ (which Luke includes, but not Matthew).
- They left the crowd behind.
- The disciples took Jesus ‘just as he was’.
- There were other boats with the boat the disciples were in.
- The waves were breaking over the side of the boat (mentioned in Matthew but not Luke).
- Jesus was asleep in the stern and with his head on a cushion (this is one of my favourite eye-witness observations in the gospels: where had the cushion come from? Did someone, perhaps Jesus, think to pick one up as they got in the boat?!)
- Jesus’ specific words in his ‘rebuke’ to the wind and waves: ‘Peace! Be still!’
- Jesus’ two questions to the disciples, including ‘Why are you afraid?’
We need to read this short story slowly and carefully in order to notice all these details—which is, of course, another good reason to learn Greek and read the Greek text, since this forces us to slow down! And it is a reason to ensure that whoever does the public reading of this passage does it carefully, slowly, with understanding and with appropriate drama.
The question as we read is whether Mark is including each detail because it just happened, whether he includes it because it appears to be of symbolic significance, and whether the observations here offer material for our reflection and application—or all three!
It appears to be highly significant that Jesus suggests to the disciples that they all ‘go across to the other side of the lake’; this does not mean traversing the whole lake, but involves crossing the top section only. But this takes them out of the territory of Herod Antipas into the territory of (Herod) Philip; although both regions were Jewish-Gentile mixed regions, it represented a move from Jewish territory proper into a Gentile region. There are eight crossings and returns of this section of the lake, and along with the repeated mention of boats, this gives the gospel a nautical feel which squares with the idea of it depending on Peter’s account as an eye witness. And this creates apparent parallels between Jesus’ ministry within Israel and outside it with Gentiles:
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(All this, incidentally, makes the claim that Jesus was a racist who had to learn inclusion from a Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7.24–30 completely absurd.)
They leave behind ‘the crowd’, which is a consistent feature of the first part of Mark’s gospel, though even then they cannot get away, as other boats follow them. Charles Spurgeon preached at least three recorded sermons on this text, one focussing on Jesus’ apparent lack of care, another on the disciples’ sense of wonder, and a third reflecting on the theme of peace. They are all worth reading as examples of imaginative symbolic readings of the text and for Spurgeon’s dramatic use of extravagant language. In the first, he sees the presence of other boats as symbolic of Jesus’ leadership in the church:
Though today a church may flourish abundantly, in a very short time it may be visited with stern adversities; it may be tried none the less, but all the more, because God is in its midst, and is blessing it. When our Lord took ship the weather appears to have been very fair, and many little boats which scarce would have tempted the sea had its surface been ruffled, put out upon the lake under the convoy of the great Teacher’s vessel. His was the admiral’s flag ship, and they were the happy fleet. They made a gay flotilla sailing softly like sea birds when the ocean is in a gentle mood. All hearts were happy, all spirits were serene, and the sleep of the Master was but a type of the general peace. Nature reposed; the lake was as a molten looking glass, everything was quiet; and yet all on a sudden, as is the custom with these deep-lying inland seas, the storm-fiend rushed from his haunt among the mountains, sweeping everything before it; the little vessel was hard put to it, she was well-nigh filled with water, and ready to sink through the force of the driving hurricane.
The idea of the boat as a symbol of the church has its roots in the story of Noah and the ark, which was a means of salvation for the faithful remnant, and this symbolism is found in early commentators:
For as many as are in the little ship of faith are sailing with the Lord; as many as are in the bark of the holy church will voyage with the Lord across this wave-tossed life… (Origin, Fr Matt 3.3, quoted in Beavis p 90).
It is not a perfect analogy, though, since the disciples in the boat do not yet understand and, according to Mark, do not actually have faith!
I have not found any explanation of what it meant for the disciples to take Jesus ‘just as he was’. I can only assume that fishermen would normally dress in a particular way to sail, and that the usual garb of those on the land was not suitable for being in the boat. If so, this is part of the repeated contrast between Jesus and the disciples; they are the ‘professionals’, yet they are vulnerable, whilst he, the ‘amateur’, knows what he is doing.
Spurgeon’s language of ‘storm-fiend’ above picks up on the idea that different elements of the weather were caused by different spirits or demons, and reflects the fact that Jesus uses personal language to rebuke it—though otherwise this idea is not expressed anywhere in the gospels. Jesus’ power here is over the created order, though it runs in parallel with the power of demonic possession expressed in the following story.
Because Galilee lies in quite a deep depression surrounded by hills, the weather can change quickly, and storms can arise out of the blue (as it were). The evidence of the ‘Jesus boat’ at Nof Ginosar shows that typical fishing vessels of the time were quite low-sided, as they would need to be to haul fish aboard, and so would be vulnerable to a sudden storm and the waves it produced.
We should also note that first century Jews had a deep distrust of the sea and water, since (in the Old Testament) it was the abode of untamed monsters, and (symbolically e.g. in Dan 7) the source of powers arising who were deeply opposed to God and his people.
Like the master storyteller that he is, Mark defers the information that Jesus has fallen asleep till after the mention of the storm (Luke 8.23 reverses the order and eliminates the narrative tension here) and so heightens the contrast between the panic-stricken disciples in fear of death, and Jesus calmly asleep in the stern, on a cushion. Spurgeon, in the third of his sermons, interprets this as illustrating Jesus’ trust in God:
He had perfect confidence in God that all was well. The waves might roar, the winds might rage, but He was not at all disquieted by their fury. He knew that the waters were in the hollow of His Father’s hand, and that every wind was but the breath of His Father’s mouth; and so He was not troubled; nay, He had not even a careful thought, He was as much at ease as on a sunny day. His mind and heart were free from every kind of care, for amid the gathering tempest He deliberately laid Himself down, and slept like a weary child.
But as his last phrase hints, this might simply be a sign of his humanity: after a busy day of teaching, Jesus was tired and needed to rest. In the history of interpretation, a third possibility is raised—that the episode was one designed to test the disciples. These three possibilities (trust in God, humanity, testing of the disciples) might not be in contradiction to one another. The human Jesus needed to both trust God in moments of challenge and difficulty, but also need to trust and rely on those around him, and when we trust someone that always involves a test for them—will they live up to the trust we have placed in them?
As usual, Mark is uncompromising in depicting the disciples’ desperation and lack of faith, which Matthew and Luke both soften. Where in the other gospels they look to Jesus to save them, here they despair at Jesus’ apparent indifference. Again, Spurgeon sees this as an illustration of the life of all disciples:
We are very apt, when we are under a trying dispensation, to judge the laws of nature to be very pitiless ordinances without bowels of mercy, and we say, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?”
Much has been made of Jesus’ command ‘Peace! Be still!’ and the idea that Jesus speaks peace to the world around arising from the peace that he has within himself. But we should note that the term here is not the usual one for peace (eirene) but the verb siopao meaning to be silent. The miracle here is not simply that the storm stops blowing, but that the waves immediately became calm, when naturally this would take some time.
There is a wonderful irony in Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples and their subsequent response. He challenges their lack of faith in him—and the result is that they still have neither faith nor understanding. And having been terrified by the storm, they are even more terrified by the calm and the one who has the power to bring it about. We will again see, in the deliverance of the demoniac, a similar response from the gentiles, who see the calm in the man and plead with Jesus to leave. We might hate storms, but at least we they have the comfort of familiarity.
It is hard to miss the parallels with the story of Jonah. In both cases, the boat in a storm is about to disintegrate; the sailors are terrified (‘feared with a great fear’ Jonah 1.10, Mark 4.41); Jonah, like Jesus, is asleep despite the storm; the one sleeping is awoken since they are all about to perish (compare Jonah 1.6 and Mark 4.38); there is a sudden calm and all are amazed at what God has done. The difference, of course, is that the storm is Jonah’s fault, and it is Jesus who exercises the power of God over the forces of nature. There is only one possible implied answer to the disciples’ almost rhetorical question, ‘Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?’
It is worth noting that, compelling though Spurgeon’s poetic and dynamic use of this story is, he is offering no allegorical reading. The application of the story to our situation hinges on the power of Jesus over the forces of nature, and these include the challenges that we will face day by day. ‘With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm…’ only because, in this story, we see the power of Jesus over that the storm revealed, and it is this same Jesus whom we trust today who has power over every storm.
But the final challenge is perhaps directed to us. Even though the miracle points clearly to who Jesus really is, the miracle alone does not lead to faith. That will require something else…