Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 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?” (Mark 4:35-41 – NRSV)
This same story is recounted in Matthew 8:23–27 and Luke 8:22–25 – reminding us of the dependence of both Matthew and Luke on Mark.
“The calming of the storm is full of vivid details, many of which are flattened or omitted in the versions of the story in Matt 8:23–27 and Luke 8:22–25. Mark’s version is replete with eyewitness characteristics: the hour of day (v. 35), the reference that the disciples took Jesus from the boat in which he was sitting (v. 36), the presence of other boats (v. 36), the boat’s drawing water (v. 37), Jesus’ sleeping on the cushion (v. 38), the disciples’ sarcasm (v. 38) and Jesus’ rebuke (v. 40). Moreover, the description of the disciples’ fear in v. 41 is redundant in Greek (smoothed out in the NIV, “they were terrified”), reflecting an underlying infinitive absolute in Hebrew. Particulars such as these are evidence of firsthand narration, and Peter is again a likely source. These historical details are not related randomly and inchoately, as one might find in a diary entry, for example. The story exhibits sophisticated theological thought and reflects in particular the influence of Jonah 1 and Ps 107:23–32. The calming of the storm illustrates Mark’s larger purpose of interpreting historical events theologically so as to show Jesus as God incarnate and his significance for discipleship” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 147-148).
Mark tells a very similar story in 6:45-52. In this latter incident however, Jesus is not asleep in the boat but comes to them across the water, emerging from the very heart of the storm as it were.
Let us go across to the other side: Jesus’ mission had begun on the shore of Galilee when he called the first disciples – see 1:16-20. There are two things to note in this statement signalling an important development. Firstly, it announces, as it were, that Jesus is on the move. He belongs to no particular place and yet every place. His preaching will take him beyond the boundaries of Galilee, and eventually, through his disciples, to the whole world. Secondly, this is the beginning of a number of crossings of the Sea of Galilee, from the west – mostly inhabited by the Jews – to the east – mostly inhabited by the Gentiles. This crossing takes him to the east in 5:1; he returns to the west in 5:21; another voyage from west to east begins in 6:45; the return to the west is in 6:53. He then makes a journey on land to the north that eventually terminates in the east in 7:31 and returns to the West in 8:10. There is another voyage to the east as part of his visit to Caesarea Philippi in 8:13. He returns to Galilee by land in 9:30. An earlier reference comes to mind: “‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons’” (1:38-39).
And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him: What are we to make of these details, that “they took him as he was” and that “other boats were with him”? We are left to wonder.
A great windstorm arose etc: Perhaps we are to think of Jonah here? (See Jonah 1:4-6). Perhaps too, Jesus’ “sleeping” in the boat recalls the farmer’s “sleeping” while the seed grows – see Mark 4:27. “As Jonah retired to the bowels of the ship and fell into a deep sleep (Jonah 1:5), Jesus is also described by Mark sleeping on a sailor’s cushion in the stern of the boat. Ironically, the only place in the Gospels that we hear of Jesus sleeping is during a storm. The scene depicts his complete trust in God in the midst of adversity, like the farmer in the preceding parables (4:3–9, 27) who trusts God’s providential working over all obstacles and adversities. As in the Jonah story, the disciples, some of them veteran seamen, are terrified by the ferocity of the storm. The captain of Jonah’s ship upbraids Jonah for sleeping while the crew is perishing (LXX, apollymi); likewise the disciples reproach Jesus, “ ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown (Gk. apollymi)?’ ” Matt 8:25 softens the reproach to a prayer, and Luke 8:24 to a plea for help. The rudeness of Mark’s wording reflects the way frustrated and desperate people speak (cf. Luke 10:40) and is probably a verbatim reminiscence of the disciples’ response in the crisis. A later editor is not likely to have made Jesus the object of such a reproof. The divine humility of Jesus is made evident by his tolerance of the reproaches of his disciples. That same humility will be evinced later when verbal reproach turns to outright abandonment (14:50)” ( J R Edwards, op cit, 149)
Another scholar observes that “an untroubled sleep is a sign of trust in the power and protection of God (Prov 3:32–34; Pss 3:5; 4:8; Job 11:18–19). The almost comic contrasts among the deep sleep of Jesus, the raging sea, and the terror of the disciples heighten the power of the word of Jesus” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, The Liturgical Press, 2002,158).
Peace! Be still!: Jesus speaks to the wind as “someone” he knows. There is an unmistakable reference to Genesis here. In the beginning “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind (ruah) from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). It is the word of God that brings cosmos from chaos: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). See also Genesis 2:7 (“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”); Ezekiel 37:9-10 (“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”); Wisdom 15:11 (“they failed to know the one who formed them and inspired them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them”).
It is the word of Jesus that makes all the difference here. Paradoxically, it is the ruah of God that will play such a creative part on the biblical story. In the Septuagint it is translated as pneuma, in the New Testament is pneuma which is translated in Latin as Spiritus and in English as Spirit.
We find similar echoes in the Gospel of John. For example, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (1:1-2); in the post-resurrection appearance, Jesus appears in the locked room and breathes on the disciples – see John 20:22. See also John 19:30
All three synoptic Gospels give accounts of the calming of the storm – see Matthew 8:23–27; Luke 8:22–25 and Mark 4:35-41 which is today’s Gospel. Each of the accounts is remarkably similar. There is one extraordinary detail, however, that sets Mark’s account apart. At the height of their fear, Mark tells us that “they” – the disciples – said to Jesus, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Don’t you care! What a thing to say to Jesus!
The fact that Jesus is asleep in the boat suggests to the disciples that he has, in effect, abandoned them to the dark forces of the world: “The image of the storm or of great waters was a metaphor for evil forces active in the world and especially for the tribulations of just people, from which only the power of God could save (Pss 18:16; 69:2, 14–15)” (Daniel J Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 160).
Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Pause. Give the question time to sink in.
The story of the disciples in the storm, with Jesus asleep in the boat, shares something in common with God’s revelation to Moses on Horeb – see Exodus 3:1-14. God is revealed – “I will be with you” – as one who remains hidden – “I am who I am”. In the revealing is a concealing. We must always bow to the sovereignty of God. In acknowledging God’s unknowability, uncontrollability and utter otherness, we actually protect – paradoxically – the amazing truth of God’s closeness, immanence and capacity to love each of us unconditionally. Only God could make the promise: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God …. I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 41:10 & 43:1).
Listen to the reflections of a 5th or 6th century Christian author whose works have come down to us under the name of Dyonisius the Areopagite. He represents the Tradition well: “As for the love of Christ for humanity, the Word of God, I believe, uses this term to hint that the transcendent has put aside its own hiddenness, and has revealed itself to us by becoming a human being. But he is hidden even after this revelation, or, if I may speak in a more divine fashion, is hidden even amid the revelation. For this mystery of Jesus remains hidden and can be drawn out by no word or mind. What is to be said of it remains unsayable; what is to be understood of it remains unknowable” (Christos Yannaras, On the Absence and Unkowability of God – Heidegger and the Areopagite, translated by Haralambos Ventis, T & T Clark International, 2005, 93).
One of the greatest challenges – and opportunities – in our lives, must surely be God’s being in the flesh. What it conceals is in direct proportion to what it reveals. But isn’t this the way it is with all loving encounters?