“Who indeed is this,” the disciples wonder in awe and terror, “that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?” (Mark 4:41, my translation). This text is, it appears to me, the conclusion to the Seedy Apocalypse in Mark 4. It is also, I think, the end of “Act 1” in Mark’s gospel. The question the disciples ask in Mark 4:41, remains hanging in the air, reverberating with wonder and challenge. I can imagine a first-century presenter narrating the storm and the concluding question and then pausing with great effect to take a drink and straighten her robes before moving on.
After the great rhetorical sweeps of John’s gospel during the Easter season, a small lection like this from Mark may seem more like an amuse bouche than the main course for the morning. But given its place in Mark’s plot and dramatic structure, we shouldn’t be lulled into that sort of hermeneutical complacency. This is the kind of scene that rings down a curtain and sends the audience to the snack bar buzzing with anticipation.
That being said, perhaps it’s the wise preacher who doesn’t wrap up the sermon this week with too tidy of a homiletical bow. The concluding question sets up our reflections for the weeks to come. Perhaps the last words of the sermon should be a question left hanging in unresolved silence.
With just a few verses at hand, we might think there’s not much to process here. But, oh, my friends! A small text like this is an invitation (at least to me) to scratch and dig, to pick and parse, to apply tweezers and scalpel and expose the deep tissue hiding under Mark’s simple words. Most of that detail is not going to make it into our sermons for the day. But that exegetical dissection will give us the depth and detail this text demands and deserves.
35-36 – And he says to them on that day as it was becoming evening, “Let’s go across into the other side.” And leaving the crowd they took him as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him.
Commentators have puzzled for centuries over the observation that “other boats were with him.” Such an interesting phrase. Wouldn’t we expect the text to say that other boats were with “them,” that is, the disciples? After all, they were the ones in charge of sailing the boat. But the text clearly states that these additional boats were with “him.”
It was still the day of the Seedy Discourse. But a new day was (be)coming. Remember that the Jewish day begins at sundown, not at midnight as it does in our construction of the diurnal clock. Jesus doesn’t make a casual suggestion about crossing the Sea of Galilee. It is rather a command, a “hortatory subjunctive” that calls others into a course of action the speaker has already chosen.
“Across” refers, of course, to the Sea of Galilee. The direction is contained in the verb, which can also mean “to pass through” a place. The trip would take them “into” the other side, not merely up to the edge of the Gentile territory on the eastern shore of the lake. The term for the “other side” means something like “the beyond” or “the over yonder.” It’s not just a trip to another location. It is rather a trip also to a different kind of space. “Is this first Markan boat story symbolically implying Jesus’ openness to the Gentile world?” Jim Bailey asks, as he notes this is a major theme in Mark’s gospel.
Maarman Tshehla explores this trip in connection with the mention of “other boats too.” The trip to “the other side” refers to the land east of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Not only is this Gentile territory, but it presents a parallel area of activity for Jesus. “It is critical that the Markan Jesus does in Gerasa or Gedara what he has done in Capernaum,” Tshehla writes, “and that he does in the Decapolis as he did throughout Galilee” (page 8).
The Galilean crowd is left wondering if Jesus is mad or marvelous. That issue is not yet resolved for them, and Jesus leaves them to ponder what they have seen and heard. Jesus had been teaching from the boat, so they took him “as he was in the boat.” He didn’t need to embark for them to head out on to the lake. Nor did anything about him appear to change. So far, he was “just Jesus.”
We listeners know that he was and is far more than “just Jesus.” Mark’s deft irony is apparent here. “This Jesus, who was ‘just as he was’ in the boat, was way more than ordinary,” Jacobsen writes, “He was in his weakness a disclosure, a revelation, an apocalypse of the living God among us.”
“That the Markan community took Jesus just as he was is vital,” Tshehla argues. “It is testimony to a consciousness among them neither to dilute Jesus’ revolutionary portrayal of the kingdom of God nor to clothe him in incongruous garb” (page 8). This move across the sea to the other side was a story about moving beyond the borders of safe, comfortable, familiar, and acceptable territory in order to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to others beyond the borders.
In Mark, there is a parallel between actions Jesus takes in Galilee and those he takes on “the other side.” He feeds crowds on both sides. He cast out demons on both sides. He heals the sick on both sides. He encounters opposition on both sides. He shows compassion to women of all ages on both sides (page 10). “People on the other side, people often identified with swine, tombs and such other defilers,” Tshehla writes, “benefit from Jesus just as much as do groups on this side, groups represented by synagogues and such other religious familiarities” (page 8).
An unoriginal sermon title might be, “Both Sides Now.” Yes, my age is showing in numerous ways.
And, Tshehla reminds us, it is the disciples who take Jesus over to the other side. “To be with Jesus is to be cognizant of and genuinely interested in the welfare of all other boats around you, the sea does not care about the labels you give your fellow voyagers,” Tshehla concludes. “To follow Jesus is to be humble enough to see yourself through the eyes of the different other. Taking Jesus across just as he is,” Tshehla concludes, “means being genuinely concerned about those around you, those in the other boats” (page 11).
This image of “the other boats” certainly has potential for application in our time and space. If we see our congregations (or denominations) as “boats,” then this is an imperative to break those boundaries and embrace the needs and perspectives and strengths of the whole flotilla. If we imagine our ethnic, racial, and cultural divisions as “boats,” there is the same imperative.
There is a danger to the “other” aspect of other boats and other sides. Some scholars wonder if Mark has somewhat uncritically adopted the imperialist, colonial assumptions of the Roman system and simply proposed that Jesus is on the throne rather than Caesar. If that’s the case, then we should exercise great care in our interpretation.
Even if that’s not Mark’s assumption, it can too easily become ours. “Other” quickly translates into strange, foreign, inferior – and then savage, strange, and worthy of elimination. We too often think we’re bringing Jesus in our boat when in fact we are bringing our desire to dominate culturally, racially, economically, and theologically. That does not seem to fit with the mission of the Lord who comes not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
“Otherness is due less to the difference of the Other than to the point of view and the discourse of the person who perceives the Other as such,” Jean-Francois Staszak writes in the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. “Opposing Us, the Self, and Them, the Other, is to choose a criterion that allows humanity to be divided into two groups: one that embodies the norm and whose identity is valued and another that is defined by its faults, devalued and susceptible to discrimination.”
The “Other” is a construction based on centering our own perspective and position as normal and normative. There’s an opportunity in this text to reflect on and encourage the deconstruction of our own “othering” perspectives and practices. That’s especially appropriate during a week when we remember the murders of the Charlottesville Nine and the celebration (or lack thereof) of Juneteenth.
As far as Jesus is concerned, in an important sense, there are no “Others.” I should hasten to say that it takes a bit for this to “stick” in Jesus’ mind and ministry (see the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman). But it is certainly part of Mark’s overall theme for the Gospel. Is it a theme for us as Jesus-followers?
References and Resources
Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.
Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.
Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).
Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.
Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.
Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.