3. I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost!
The accounts of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus Walking on Water from Mark’s gospel do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. This is an argument, in my book, for reading or at least referring to these texts in the message this week. Mark’s account has emphases that are not addressed in the same way in the extensive discourse in John’s gospel. In Mark’s account, we go from the Compassionate and Truly Human One to the Master of Wind and Wave. And we find them to be the same person!
Most important, it is clear that the writer of Mark intends to connect completely the two accounts. “And he came up into the boat with them, and the wind abated. And they were exceedingly astounded in themselves, for they did not understand (based upon the loaves), but rather their hearts were being hardened” (Mark 6:51-52, my translation).
As Jesus is revealed in his compassionate response to the confused and chaotic crowd, so he is now revealed in his authority over wind and wave. “Since Mark thus ties together these two incidents, it is likely that he wants his reader to see them both as complementary revelations of Jesus,” Hurtado writes. “This means that this sea miracle is another manifestation of the divine significance of Jesus’ person and not just a miracle story” (page 103).
Swanson translates “hardened” as “calloused” – an interesting choice that sparks deeper reflection on what the writer means. The Greek verb has to be with hardening or petrifying. As the crowds continue to pursue Jesus in order to benefit from his presence, the disciples seem to be drifting further and further away from him.
“[T]he world swirls to Jesus,” Swanson notes, “even more than it did to John the Baptist. Jesus is instantly recognized, and the benefits he offers are instantly perceived,” he continues. “But those people who follow Jesus most closely are given scene after scene in which they act out their incomprehension” (page 198).
What’s the deal here, Swanson wonders. Perhaps these texts reflect the struggles of the Markan community to come to terms with their own suffering even after hearing and embracing “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Swanson wonders if there is a problem of “insider incomprehension” in the community that is mirrored in the calloused hearts of the disciples. He’s worth quoting at length here.
“Outsiders and immature insiders may believe that Christian faith immediately smooths all roads and raises all deeply shadowed valleys. Insiders who have seen a little more know that this is not true. It may be that the theme of insider incomprehension is a storytelling strategy through which Mark’s story works out what it means to tell stories about resurrection in a world where everyone dies. And that may go a long way toward explaining the odd way that Mark tells the story of Jesus’ resurrection” (pages 198-199).
Always for the writer of Mark’s gospel, the question is about the identity of Jesus. “This sea miracle Mark enlists as further evidence that Jesus is not just human but has a supernatural quality and divine significance,” Hurtado suggests. “Even the way Jesus addresses the disciples, ‘It is I,’ implies this” (page 103). The Greek in verse 50 is, in literal translation, “I am.” As Hurtado notes, this is the formula of divine disclosure in the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus calls himself by God’s proper name.
It may have occurred to the reader that these stories in Mark 6 have a number of allusions and echoes that take us to the Hebrew Scriptures. An exploration of these allusions and echoes will help us to understand several obscure references in the text. I would commend Ortlund’s article in that regard, but I will offer a bit of summary to move the conversation forward.
Ortlund describes the connection between this text and the account in Exodus 14, which precedes the story of feeding the people with manna in the wilderness in Exodus 16. The writer of Mark’s gospel connects his stories in just the way they are linked in Exodus. In addition, both Exodus 14 and Mark 6 happen at night. The wind and wave buffet the faithful all during the night in each case. The calm comes with the morning. The people cry out in fear and are told to have courage (the same verb occurs in Mark 6 and the LXX).
“Mark seems, then,” Ortlund writes, “to be presenting the sea-walking of Mark 6 as a recapitulation of the exodus” (page 322).
A second narrative from the Hebrew scriptures related to our text is, according to Ortlund, in Exodus 33-34. In particular, both texts have the verb translated as “passing by” the disciples. Every time I read this text, I wonder what in the world that means. Ortlund notes that in Exodus 33-34, as well as in other Hebrew scriptures, the verb doesn’t mean to ignore or avoid. It is rather the verb used to describe theophanies – when God passes by in order to be seen.
Ortlund notes that the “passing by” in Mark’s account has numerous parallels with the “passing by” in Exodus. Both accounts follow a miraculous feeding and discussion of the sabbath. Both have God’s representative hobnobbing with God on a “mountain.” In both cases, God’s people are terrified and then calmed down by God’s representative. They are astonished at what they hear, and don’t respond all that well to it. The time between the leader’s leaving and reappearing is most of a night in each case (page 324).
Ortlund points to other significant texts, but the upshot is fairly straightforward. Jesus is not ignoring or avoiding the disciples in the wallowing boat. Instead, the writer uses a term that clearly indicates the divine nature of the encounter on the sea. The same verb is reflected in Job 9 and Amos 7-8.
The theological significance of this text, Ortlund argues, is that it demonstrates the inauguration of the eschatological age – Mark’s primary focus. He quotes Jurgen Moltmann in this regard. Moltmann argues that such miracles are not suspensions of the natural order but rather restorations of that order. Just as compassion is a mark of the truly human one, so this effortless control of the natural world (see C. S. Lewis on this) is also a mark of humanity as the Creator intended it.
“The miracles return life to the way it was meant to be,” Ortlund asserts. “They are glimpses of the restoration that will one day be fully and finally consummated,” he concludes, “the miracles, in other words, are eschatological” (page 330). If that’s the case in Mark’s account as a whole, it is therefore the case in the Water-walking text as well.
In what ways is that true? Jesus passes by as God passes by. This is a Divine theophany, but the Divine One doesn’t leave again. When God stops passing by but rather remains, that’s a sign of the New Age, according to the Amos text. When God passes by in the Hebrew scriptures, humans must hide their faces in order to be safe. But when Jesus passes by, all can see him just as he is. That’s a sign of the New Age. And, of course, there is Jesus’ use of the “I am” name for himself. When God is personally present and remains, the New Age has certainly been launched.
I want to focus for a moment or two on the verb that describes how the disciples experience their boat ride. The verb that describes their experience can be and often is translated as “tormented” or even “tortured.” The wind was torturing them as they rowed in the opposite direction in vain. I have to wonder if the writer of Mark’s gospel chose this word with great intention – to touch the ears of listeners who had been or knew people who had suffered torture for the sake of the gospel.
The verb used to describe the rowing can also mean to drive or drive out. It is a word used to describe how demonic forces can drive and compel possessed people. The emphasis in Mark’s account on demonic possession and the binding of the Strong Man should cause us to sharpen our hearing at this point. Pulling hard in the effort to drive out the demons is what disciples do and should expect to do.
In Christian scripture and in our creed, we note that the Gospel has happened “according to the scriptures.” Of course, that means the Hebrew Scriptures, since the Christian scriptures were still in the process of composition. It does not merely mean that the Hebrew scriptures were a ready repository of proof texts for beavering Christian scribes. Rather, a deep familiarity with those scriptures made it nearly impossible for early Christians to read the Hebrew scriptures and not find manifold allusions to and echoes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
If nothing else, Mark 6 should motivate us to know the Hebrew scriptures much better if we want the Christian word to work on us fully.
References and Resources
De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Ortlund, D. (2012). THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND AND ESCHATOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA (MARK 6:45-52). Neotestamentica, 46(2), 319-337. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43049201
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.