Text Study for Mark 4:35-41 (Pt. 3); 4 Pentecost B 2021

40-41 – And he said to them, “Why are you cowering? Don’t you have faith yet?” And they experienced a great fear, and were saying to one another, “Who indeed is this, that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?”

Jesus doesn’t ask them why they are afraid. Fear would be natural in this situation. The word he uses is more akin to a desperate panic, a fear that has nearly given up all hope. “Why are you cowardly?” Jim Bailey translates it. “Do you not yet have faith?” That should be kept in mind as we read the second question. It is something like, “Have you given up hope already?”

“How do you not have faith?” Richard Swanson asks. “This is a question that Mark’s story hands its audience. The question is a problem. It is a problem first of all,” he notes, “because it is not entirely clear what he means” (page 176).

Jesus does not refer to an intellectual assent to propositions here. Swanson suggests that most of the time Mark means “faithfulness” when he uses the word, although the translation is not quite so clear in this instance.

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Swanson notes a second problem in Jesus’ accusing question. His implied demand seems unreasonable. Only a fool would not be afraid in the face of apparently certain death. “It is the mark of an experienced sailor to know when it is time to be afraid,” Swanson writes, “just as it is the mark of an adult to know what is impossible. It was time to be afraid,” Swanson concludes, “it would have been impossible not to be afraid” (page 176).

“When his companions wake [Jesus],” writes Matt Skinner, “accusing him of indifference or negligence, they have lost hope; their words reveal that they have already figured out how the story must end.” Even though they have accompanied Jesus and observed his healings and exorcisms, they do not yet trust Jesus, as Bailey notes.

That being said, they know enough to wake Jesus up and implore him to do something. That is, as Swanson points out, a sort of faith or trust in Jesus in the face of hopelessness. The disciples, “like crowd after crowd in the story, look at Jesus and expect great things. They expect not only that Jesus ought to be awake, carrying out his responsibilities,” Swanson argues, “but that if he were, they were would not be dying” (page 176).

As Swanson notes, based on the story so far, the expectation of the disciples is reasonable. And yet, Jesus calls this rational expectation having no faith yet. “How odd,” Swanson observes (page 176).

Daniel Howard-Snyder looks closely at this question about “what kind of faith?” in his 2016 article. He concludes that “the account of faith that emerges from Mark is that faith consists in resilience in the face of challenges to living in light of the overall positive stance to the object of faith, where that stance consists in certain conative, cognitive, and behavioral-dispositional elements” (page 31). Howard-Snyder (HS) is writing in the International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, and his detailed, nuanced, and somewhat technical description requires a bit of unpacking.

HS reports that pericopes concerned with “faith” make up 20% of Mark’s gospel account. Having faith is part of the thematic statement of the gospel in Mark 1:15 – “Change your way of thinking and have faith in the Good News!” HS argues that the gospel account tells stories to show what “having faith in” looks like and does so in large part through commending the “faith” responses of characters in the story.

“Jesus is the protagonist of the story,” he writes. “Nothing matters more in the world of the story than his identity, his relation to God’s rule, and the right response to him and the good news he proclaims,” HS continues. “Thus, when he commends someone for their faith, they are commendable for it” (page 35). Based on the data, he argues that “resilience in the face of challenges to living in light of one’s overall positive stance toward the object of faith” (in this case, Jesus) is “a stellar candidate” for what Mark’s Jesus means by faith.

On the other hand, the data suggests that “belief that relevant propositions are true” is, he argues, “not a stellar candidate” for what Mark’s Jesus means by faith. As illustrations, he describes the faith of Bartimaeus, the friends of the paralytic in chapter 2, and the woman with the hemorrhage in chapter 5. Other examples, he notes could include Jairus, the father of the demon-possessed boy in chapter 9, and (to our purposes) the stilling of the storm.

The latter illustration is a negative case of HS’s hypothesis. HS wonders what Jesus expected of the disciples that would qualify as “faith.” Did he expect them to be patient enough to wait for Jesus to work on his own timetable? Did you expect them to take care of the storm themselves, based on their information and commission as disciples?

“Either way,” HS suggests, “Jesus expected their faith to dampen their fear.” Since it did not, he declared that they had no faith. “Fear can pose a challenge to living in light of one’s faith,” HS continues, “and a lack of resilience in the face of challenges might manifest itself through incapacitating fear. So understood,” he concludes, “Mark closely associates lack of faith with lack of resilience” (page 43).

HS suggests that the understanding of “faith” as a combination of trust/reliance and steadfastness/resilience also fits with the larger cultural understanding of “faith” in Greco-Roman culture. This element of the gospel did not require translation before it could be understood by a non-Christian audience.

In addition to reliance and resilience, HS argues that “faith” entails a positive relationship with the object of faith as one who can meet one’s needs or fulfill one’s wishes. There is no point in reliance and resilience if we don’t believe that Jesus can get anything done!

And “faith” in Mark’s account leads to behavior appropriate to a positive relationship with the object of faith. “Generalizing, in the world of the story,” HS concludes, “faith seems to be closely associated with a disposition to act appropriately in light of one’s positive conative orientation toward its object” (page 49).

Clearly, that’s why Daniel Howard-Snyder gets the big money.

There is some relevance to believing certain truth propositions in connection with Jesus, but that understanding of faith is secondary at best in this context. Faith, according to HS, is primarily resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of challenges and threats. That faith is the primary feature of a relationship with Jesus and shapes the believer’s view of reality and actions in the world.

Just a side note of critique here. HS briefly suggests that the above definition is perhaps different from a “Lutheran” understanding of faith. Given what Luther says in the Large Catechism about what it means “to have a god,” it appears to me that HS is mistaken. Whatever we continue to rely upon in life and in death – that, according to Luther, is our god. That sounds to me like a resilient reliance in the face of challenges and threats.

“Don’t you have faith yet?” That’s probably the best translation of the three Greek words. What an insulting question! “The tension in this scene is between people who know the danger when they see it,” Swanson writes, “and Jesus who is asleep…It will not do to simply make fun of the disciples,” he continues. “No one can stop a storm, no matter what the religious hucksters pretend” (page 180).

Our folks have been told too often and too loudly that the opposite of faith is doubt. In fact, authentic and clear-eyed doubt is, in my experience, one of the most reliable doorways to deeper, more nuanced, more grounded faith (whatever that is). So, perhaps we should take a minute or two to dispose of that limited and modernist notion of faith as intellectual assent to a set of pre-defined propositions. We can release a few people from unnecessary bondage in this way.

Our folks have been told too often and too loudly that the opposite of faith is fear. That has made more sense to me at times, but in the end, I find that problematic as well. Desperation is another reliable doorway to faith (whatever that is). That is certainly the case as Mark tells the story. The difference for the disciples, perhaps, is that they have (in comparison with others in the story) a relative wealth of information and experience at this point and don’t “yet” have faith.

That doesn’t mean the disciples will never have faith. That doesn’t mean the disciples will always have faith. That means that their resilient reliance on Jesus is a work in progress at this point. A failed experiment is not a failure. It is simply more data. Time for Jesus and the twelve to return to the test bench for some more work.

I can pray for the Spirit to give me a more resilient reliance on Jesus in the face challenges and accept the gift as I am able. I can work on habits and practices that enhance my resilient reliance on Jesus in the face of challenges. And I can exercise that resilient reliance to some degree or another even when I struggle with doubt and fear. After all, Mark tells us the story of one who cries out, “Lord, I have faith! Help my lack of faith!”

I resemble that remark.

I find that it’s too easy to declare Jesus the hero and the disciples the buffoons once again. He’s the amateur in this scene, and they are the professionals. If Jesus is allowed to simply lampoon the buffoons through our preaching, I have learned that we will alienate every wise person in our pews who has been through the storms of life. I’m with the disciples on this one.

And then, he stills the storm.

Who the hell is this guy in the boat with us? If we can get to that combination of consternation and contemplation, we may approach what Mark is up to in this text.

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.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel. “Markan Faith.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2017) 81:31-60. DOI 10.1007/s11153-016-9601-2.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.

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).

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.

Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

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.

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