Mark 4:35-41

The New Community (1)

Defining the Features

The locale would change, as would the mood. The advent of the Kingdom, as well as something of its nature and its potential, had been introduced and briefly pondered. In Mark’s mind it became important to review next the consequences for the community of disciples.

Mark would begin a new section of his narrative where Jesus would be continually moving around, across the sea, on the sea, in pagan territory, in Jewish territory. The geography would be significant, not for its factual detail but for its symbolism. To the Jew, pagan meant more than simply non-Jewish. It carried feelings associated not just with otherness but with uncleanness and an instinctive abhorrence of idolatry.

Struggling With The Unfamiliar

Mark 4:35-41 – Jesus Stills the Storm

35 That day, as it was getting later, [Jesus] said,
“Let us go across to the other shore”.
36 They dismissed the crowd
and took Jesus as he was into the boat.  
There were other boats with them.

Jesus had been addressing the crowds from a boat moored at the edge of the lake. In this incident, the disciples and Jesus moved away from the shoreline, and put out over the water. To the Jew generally, the water was a symbol that touched powerfully into their sense of the unfamiliar and the fearful.

37 A very strong wind squall blew up,
and waves were breaking over the boat,
threatening to fill it.
38 He was in the stern asleep on the cushion.  
They woke him up and said,
“Teacher, does it not concern you that we are sinking?” 
39 He roused himself,
rebuked the wind,
and said to the sea, “Be calmed! Be silenced!”  
The wind dropped,
and there was great stillness.

With this story Mark presented something quite different from exorcisms and healings. He was indeed making a new statement about Jesus. It was as if he were seeking to remind his readers, before outlining a further significant development in the unfolding drama, just who and what this Jesus was. He would present the listener with the Jesus who rebuked the wind and calmed the sea.

In the introduction to his work he had claimed that Jesus was both Christ and Son of God (1:1) At the beginning of the story he had presented the vision of the heavens torn apart, the Spirit of God descending, and the (unidentified) voice from heaven proclaiming to Jesus that he was God’s son, the beloved (1:9)

Did Jesus Really Still a Storm at Sea?

It is possible to raise in regard to this incident the same queries made about Jesus’ vision at the Jordan and about his healings and exorcisms. Did it really happen? Was Mark reporting as fact stories that could not stand up to the rigorous critique of today’s scientific mindset?

As mentioned in relation to Jesus’ acts of healing, wonders were accepted as part of life by people of the time. They had no clear idea of what people in the Western world today call the laws of nature. Many, perhaps most, things that happened to them were beyond their understanding. Depending on their culture they posited numerous external personal forces - angels, gods or demons - as the arbitrary causes of much of what went on in their world. In the non-Jewish world many people had “mythical” explanations for simple things like the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars, or accepted them without question. They did not know that events beyond their own control had their own natural causes. For the Jew the same phenomena were the result of either the direct action of God or of angelic powers, who also were the sources of the winds, etc.. 

The attitudes of Christians, who accept the mystery that Jesus was equally human as divine, will fall somewhere along a spectrum. One tendency leans more in the direction of some sort of “operational divinisation” of Jesus’ humanity, such that he could perform actions beyond the possibility of other humans (as, for example, rebuking the wind and stilling the sea). Others tend to lean in the direction of an “operational emptying” of Jesus’ divinity, as Paul’s letter to the Philippians would have it:

... “(he) emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8) 

In this latter case, Mark’s description could be read as a further instance of apocalyptic symbolism expressing Mark’s own faith in the deeper mystery of Jesus.

Whatever option readers may take about the historicity of the incident, its symbolism was what particularly interested Mark, and was the reason why he selected it, told it the way he did, and inserted it at this point in his narrative. 

The Jews were familiar with the story of Moses who led the Hebrew people from their captivity in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. On that journey through unfamiliar regions of the Sinai Peninsula, Moses had formed the unorganised rabble into a unified people, the People of God. God made the escape possible by means of a strong wind that blew all night and dried the seabed, so enabling the Hebrew people to cross dry-shod and safe.

Mark may have wished to make a statement about Jesus. He may also have wished to indicate that the unfolding story would chart the definition of the new community of disciples soon to exercise the mind of Jesus.

At the same time, Mark would develop two further themes, as the narrative would immediately indicate:

40 He said to them
“Why were you so frightened?
How is it you have no faith?”
41 They were terrified,
and said to each other, “Who is this,
that the wind and the sea obey him?”

One theme would be the disciples’ continuing struggle to faith, their inner journey from initial fascination and response to deeper insight and commitment.

The other theme would be the intriguing question about the identity of Jesus: Who then is this? The question would arise and be answered from a variety of sources.

These two issues of faith and the identity of Jesus were not peripheral to the definition of the community of disciples. As will become more obvious as the story unfolds, the basis of the community’s identity would not lie in ethnic identity, religious background or simple friendship or congeniality. It would be based purely on the common acceptance in faith of the driving dream and mission of Jesus. This identity would always therefore be fragile and vulnerable, since faith was not a once and for all enlightenment but a gradual growth in insight and commitment.

In its turn, faith in the Jesus who proclaimed the Kingdom would be determined by people’s sense of the authenticity of Jesus himself. Personal ownership of the dreams and values espoused by Jesus would be the fruit of inner growth and discovery. Its truth had no other criterion than its resonance, beyond projection, with the deepest inner core of each person. It would be the product of a never-ending conversion. The outcome of that conversion would be the intuition that the “face” of Jesus was nothing less than the most perfect human expression of the “face” of God. Yet Mark would show the journey to be perilous. The weakness of Jesus, more than anything else, would reveal the truth of God. Acceptance would call for nothing less than death to the ego-oriented and originated self.

The Christian Experience

Jesus and the disciples crossed to the other shore. This other shore was unknown territory, pagan territory. Jesus’ prime focus of mission had been his own Jewish compatriots. He did not consider that he had a specific mission to non-Jews. Yet Mark would be insistent that Jesus did on occasion enter their territory and did engage with them.

The issue was significant for many Christian communities that came into existence after Jesus’ death. Were non-Jews fit to become members, and, if so, under what conditions?

The crossing to the other side was dangerous – a very strong wind squall on an inhospitable sea. In the Christian communities the opening to Gentiles caused many a storm, and led some Jewish Christians to fear that they would be swamped and consequently perish.

In the midst of the Christian storm, Jesus seemed to be absent, asleep, certainly giving no clear direction. New situations would present constant challenge to the Church across the centuries, provoking particularly in those in positions of leadership consternation and paralysis instead of openness to possibilities trusting in the guiding protection of the Spirit.

Jesus responded negatively to the disciples’ panic. Why were you so frightened? How is it you have no faith? He had previously lamented the lack of faith of people, who look, but not perceive, who listen, but not understand, and indeed seemed to have exempted the disciples from the charge, explaining everything in private to them. It seemed now that the condemnation formerly reserved for the people generally was now directed sharply at the disciples.

Mark obviously wished that the point not be lost on his own community. He apparently saw a response of panic as a lack of faith. What sort of faith, then, did he expect? A faith, not simply that Jesus was in control despite his apparent absence, but a faith that his message was essentially one of inclusion, the promise of a Kingdom where, despite all indications to the contrary (the mustard plant was really not all that impressive!), all the birds of the air can find shelter in its shade; where, despite the apparent inadequacy of resources, the harvest is capable of the thirty, sixty, hundredfold.

Next >> Mark 5:1-20