Faith Has Better Teeth — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 4:35-41

Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” What is Jesus asking? Maybe he’s just impatient with the disciples’ lack of nerve. Let me illustrate.

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, “Mommy, will you stay with me all night?” Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, “I can’t dear. I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.” A long silence followed. At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, “The big sissy!”

Is that it? Is Jesus just calling those terrified disciples a bunch of big sissies? I don’t think it’s quite so simple.

Our gospel reading reminds me of a favorite line of poetry. Gerhard Frost once wrote: “Doubt gnaws at faith but faith gnaws back, and faith has better teeth.”

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That’s today’s main thought. Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

What is the connection between doubt and faith? 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?”

Think about faith here as the willingness to depend on someone in life and in death. Let me illustrate.

When my boys were about six and eight, we went to Canada on a fishing trip. The winds were terrible for days. The waves were high. It was difficult to get out on the water. We sat in our camper while the hours ticked away

Then the wind died down a bit, or so I thought. It looked like the waves weren’t so bad. We set out in our sixteen foot open boat. After a couple of miles, I discovered my error. We were navigating up and down four and five foot rollers. I couldn’t turn around due to the wind and waves. And by that time our camper was just as far away as our destination.

The boys sat down in the bow of the boat. I was terrified. They, on the other hand, enjoyed the watery rollercoaster. More than that, they simply trusted me to get them through. I never forgot that lesson about the real nature of faith. As far as they could tell, I had never let them down before. And they had no reason to think that would change.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

The disciples allowed their fear to overtake them. They allowed their fear to blot out any memories of Jesus’ powerful love. They allowed doubt to chew on them until they panicked.

The disciples were like five-year old Johnny. He was in the kitchen as his mother made supper. She asked him to go into the pantry and get her a can of tomato soup, but he didn’t want to go in alone. “It’s dark in there and I’m scared.” She asked again, and he persisted.

Finally she said, “It’s OK–Jesus will be in there with you.” Johnny walked hesitantly to the door and slowly opened it. He said: “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me that can of tomato soup?”

We can laugh at little Johnny’s request. But he had it right. The problem in the boat wasn’t fear. The problem was that they forgot who to ask for help.

Too often and too loudly we’ve been told 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. 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.

Too often and too loudly we’ve been told 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. That is certainly the case as Mark tells the story. The difference for the disciples, perhaps, is that they have 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.

It’s the same for me – and you. I can pray for the Spirit to give me a more resilient reliance on Jesus in the face challenges. 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.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

That being said, they know enough to wake Jesus up and implore him to do something. That is, as Richard 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.”

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

Our gospel is good news for all who are sure we’re not up to the task. The disciples panicked. Jesus speaks to the storm. The result, in a literal translation is “a great calm.” That’s what happened to the wind and the waves. That’s what Jesus wanted for his disciples as well—a great calm. That calm did not arise from the disciples’ courage. That calm came because Jesus was in the boat with them.

Show Jesus the storm at the center of your life. Hear him say to you, “Peace…be still.” If you can receive the peace he comes to give, then you can join him in the boat in the middle of your storm. And though the storm continues, you will know that the power isn’t out there, the power is with you and in you and through you.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

The alternative to the dangerous, stormy crossing, is to stay tied up on the shore. That is the picture of many churches — a peaceful, restful club house on the shore rather than a boat following Jesus’ command to take the fearful risk to cross the lake.

There is only one safe place for a boat. That’s in the harbor, tied up to the dock. But that’s not what boats are for. Boats are for going, not staying. The same is true of the church. The safest place for a congregation is inside the walls of a building. The safest place for a congregation is among the people we already know and love. The safest place for a congregation is things that are familiar.

But the church isn’t meant to be safe. The church is meant to go out.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth.

This faith is always a formed and informed faith. Jesus had spent time teaching the disciples. They had witnessed his powerful love. He was training them for the risky journey ahead. Jesus was preparing the teeth of their faith.

That’s critical for us today. Our country wonders how a young man could shoot nine people in a church. I don’t know, and I won’t add to the pointless ponderings of those who think they do. What I do know is that we can and must form and inform the faith of the next generation. If there is not time for VBS or Sunday School, for confirmation or Bible Study, for teaching and mentoring the faith, for worship and serving, then how can we be sure the next generation will have faith? I can’t fix what has happened in Charleston, but I can be part of the solution where I am here and now.

Perhaps the antidote to Christian cowardice is, first of all, remembering that Jesus really is always in the boat with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And courageous Christianity is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than doing the next right thing as we have the opportunity and the vocation. Perhaps it is the discipline of dogged dependence on the One who commands wind and wave and also rests in our hearts in love.

Doubt gnaws at us, but faith has better teeth. How are the teeth of your faith?

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

(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. (37-39) And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?”  And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (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?”

Look, I’m not a “courageous Christian” – never have been. I have plunged into things out of arrogance and folly, and sometimes those things have panned out. I have partnered with brave people who just needed a nudge, a bit of organization, and some financial support to do something important. In more positive terms, I have been compelled by compassion to do the right thing, and that has gotten me into spots that I wish I could have avoided.

But I don’t see myself as either emotionally or physically brave. Even when I found myself piloting a small boat in the midst of gale-force winds, I wasn’t brave. I was stupid, selfish, and simply had to deal with the consequences of my own actions.

Photo by Lukas Hartmann on Pexels.com

So, I recoil when Jesus looks at his freaked-out followers and says, “Why are you cowering?” For crying out loud! Seconds before they were engaged in a fight for their very lives, and they were losing. They knew the families in their villages who had lost fathers, sons, and brothers, to the impersonal and implacable force of wind and water. Now they have to feel bad for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think?

Yet, “courageous Christianity” is precisely what is called for in this time. I’m in a group that’s reading Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism, and it’s a good experience. But I’m intimidated by the subtitle – Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice. “Courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes, “contrasts with the complicit Christianity that led so many religious people to cooperate with bigotry instead of challenging it” (page 10). I’ve spent a lot more time in the arms of complicity Christianity than in the vanguard of courageous Christianity. (Read Tisby’s The Color of Compromise for more on the history of “complicity Christianity in North America).

“Courageous Christianity moves beyond the numbing safety of church walls and the comfortable Christianity that makes its home in segregated pews on Sunday mornings,” Tisby continues. “Racial justice comes from the struggle of a small but committed group of people who choose courageously to stand against racism rather than compromise with it. Courageous Christianity,” he concludes, “dares to love through action and to risk everything for the sake of justice” (page 10).

Yes, this is the kind of Christianity for such a time as this. But the disciples seem to have an advantage or two. If only, for example, we could cry out in fear (cowardly or not) and get immediate Divine action in response! Pasquale Basta observes that this text may be cruelly disappointing for those who face their own existential crisis, cry out in desperate fear, and hear nothing but apparent silence in return. I wonder how many hearers of this text might say, “All right for the disciples, but what about me?” A fair question for the preacher to keep in mind.

“In the face of these enormous questions,” Basta writes, “it is more urgent than ever to reread the passage of the stilling of the storm, seeking to interpret it in depth so as to grasp its fundamental meaning which does not actually consist in the search for a miracle or the wonderful intervention of a God who frees from difficulty those who turn to (sic) him” (page 34). That is, preachers, let’s not allow the text to sound like it makes promises it will not keep.

While I appreciate Basta’s question, I don’t find his answer compelling. What is the nature of Jesus’ criticism here? It seems that the stilling of the storm is not a positive response to the disciples’ request for help. It is, rather, a concession to their desperate terror. The disciples are, if anything, portrayed here as anti-models of discipleship.

So, is the message that we are not to call on the Lord in the midst of crises? That does not seem to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The issue is about Jesus’ identity. If they really knew who he was and trusted in that identity, then desperate terror – fear grounded in hopelessness – would no longer be an option. Jesus was in the boat with them, and that would have been enough if they were clear about who he is.

But they are not yet clear about who Jesus is. The “advantage” of an immediate response doesn’t seem to make them any braver. The “advantage” rests, in fact, with us the readers. We know who this is. And yet, I join the disciples in their mind-numbing, shutdown-inducing terror.

The construction is a lexical cognate. “They feared a great fear.” And after spending days, weeks, perhaps months with Jesus, they asked the question which anchors Mark’s gospel. Who indeed is this? We will come back to that question in chapter eight, the center of the gospel drama – “Who do people say that I am?” The question for Mark’s audience, as some of them prepare to enter the sea of the baptismal waters is the same: Who is this Jesus?

This final question, Jim Bailey suggests “hints that their desperate fear in the face of the storm has changed to awesome fear in the face of their rescuer” (page 27). He proposes that the story moves the disciples from a great storm to a great calm to a great awe. What, they wonder, have they gotten themselves into?

“We would be wise, therefore, to keep our apocalyptic glasses on as we read about Jesus’ trip on the boat and the stilling of the storm,” David Schnasa Jacobsen writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “That means that this is not just another boat ride, but the apocalyptic boat ride from hell. This is not just another miracle either,” he concludes, “but an apocalyptic revelation of Jesus’ identity.”

Tshehla argues that Jesus’ identity in Mark in thoroughly entangled with “the Teacher’s solemn concern for the others whom the tradition designates as different, lesser, unclean, even unworthy” (page 10). There is always, in Mark’s gospel, an eye to the other – the other boats, the other side, the other ethnic groups. This is present, he notes, in Mark 1:39, as Jesus goes throughout Galilee healing and casting out demons. “The presence of other boats with Jesus is thus not a remnant of some lost message,” Tshehla writes, “but rather a living invitation to every disciple to take up the challenge of experiencing God’s Kingdom outside safe spaces characterized by familiarity” (page 10).

That’ll preach as we come out of Covid-tide and begin to cross to the “other side” of that experience.

But will we take the opportunity presented by a good crisis? That’s the question facing the disciples then and the church now. The temptation in the face of the storm might have been to hold on, pull back, and hunker down. The disciples, on their own, were out of their depth and in fear for their lives. They couldn’t go back to safety, and forward seemed to hold doom and death.

“In crises, doubts about God’s presence and power arise within us,” Bailey wrote several years before the current crises besetting us. “Afterward, however, we might be in a new place to reconsider God’s involvement in this world, so that this rescue story could comfort and challenge us,” he suggests. “Confronted with our limits, this story declares that the saving God we know in  Jesus  Christ  does  not  abandon us. A divine, peaceful presence accompanies our panic-filled lives.”

“But,” he continues, “the story also challenges us to ask whether we truly entrust ourselves to Jesus as the one who will bring peace into our personal chaos and disordered world.  When delivered from an overwhelming crisis, we ponder anew the One who rescued us,” he concludes. “This storm story calls us to discern more deeply who this One is that even the wind and the sea obey him” (pages 27-28).

“This theme, ‘Who is he?’ is perhaps Mark’s major concern throughout his book,” Hurtado writes. “Only God and the demons know the truth until Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Even the disciples, who see his power firsthand,” Hurtado continues, “cannot arrive at the full truth until then” (page 81).

I sometimes forget that the Gospel of Mark was written to be performed before a community of believers and seekers. As the story-teller paused for effect after the question, I can imagine some enthusiastic listener jumping up and saying, “I know! I know! He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of us all!” How I would love to have preached a few more messages that would elicit such a spontaneous outburst of testimony!

Perhaps the antidote to Christian cowardice is, first of all, remembering that Jesus really is always in the boat with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And courageous Christianity is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than doing the next right thing, in this remembering, as we have the opportunity and the vocation. Perhaps it is the discipline of dogged dependence on the One who commands wind and wave and also rests in our hearts in love.

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.

Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

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.

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.

Text Study for Mark 4:35-41 (Pt. 2); 4 Pentecost B 2021

37-39 – And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?”  And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

After Jesus’ words and in light of his ministry of miracles and exorcisms so far, it’s not surprising that a small flotilla might accompany them to see if more fireworks were in the offing. If that’s what they hoped, they got far more than they bargained for. One of the periodic squalls for which the Sea of Galilee is famous blew up, and it was only the words of Jesus that kept them all from finding their way to the bottom of the sea.

Jim Bailey notes that, “For Markan hearers, Jesus’ authority over the wind and waters relates him directly to God, who alone possesses such power” (page 25). He notes several instances in the Hebrew psalms where God speaks to the raging seas and the storm is stilled. I was especially taken by his reminder of the words in Psalm 107:28-29 (NRSV) – “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Photo by Nuno Obey on Pexels.com

Bailey notes that the “they” in the passage refers to sailors on the sea. I detect in Mark’s account of the Stilling of the Storm an echo of events in the Book of Jonah. A fierce storm arises. The sailors exercise all their efforts, including religious ones, to keep the ship safely afloat. The one responsible for the storm is asleep in the hold, oblivious to what is happening above decks. The sailors implore the prophet to do something. The solution, Jonah says, is to sacrifice him by throwing him overboard to appease the angry God.

In the Jonah story, the pious pagans do everything else before they toss Jonah overboard. And when the sea is calmed, they exercise faith by offering prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. A storm, a sleeper, and pious pagans from the “other side” – it’s a delicious intertextual conversation happening here.

The pagan sailors in Jonah’s tale seem to have more faith than the disciples who have Jesus with them just as he was. “The story is told in such a way,” suggests Bailey, “to contrast the sleeping Jesus with his panicky disciples” (page 26). This is similar to the Jonah narrative, although Jesus’ calm is not the same as Jonah’s carelessness. With Mark’s emphasis on the faith of the outsider in the gospel account, the connection to Jonah’s tale seems quite strong and informative.

Oh, if only I were the first one to notice this intertextual conversation, but, alas, it was not to be. This is one of multiple examples of broad allusions to Hebrew scripture that we can find throughout the gospel accounts, and nowhere more so than in Mark’s gospel. In the case of Jonah, it is clear, according to Alistair Wilson, that based on these allusions, the story of Jonah was familiar to Christians when the author of Mark was composing the work.

Scholars differ on the type of relationship between our text and the story of Jonah. Is this a reworking of the Jonah story in a Christian key (which leads some commentators to question its historicity)? That’s probably saying too much. Is it a kind of typological story, one of several such stories that take Jonah as the template? That’s not particularly convincing. Is it an assertion, based on firsthand witness, that in Jesus we have something far greater than Jonah? That’s probably closer to the mark (pun intended).

Wilson suggests “that Mark’s narrative echoes elements of the Jonah story in order to draw a striking and ironic contrast between the rather pathetic Jonah, the reluctant herald, and Jesus, the true and faithful herald of the kingdom of God” (page 4). He notes at least a half dozen thematic connections and nearly as many verbal similarities and identities between the Jonah story and Mark’s narrative of the Stilling of the Storm. The connection is not certain, but it is strong enough to pursue.

Of course, there are differences in the stories as well. Wilson lists and discusses the most salient ones. Jonah flees away from his vocation as a prophet, and Jesus moves toward that vocation, fully aware of the costs. Within that difference is hidden a similarity for our text. Jonah is called to preach repentance to the pagan and hated Ninevites. Jesus crosses to the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee and enters Gentile (pagan) territory. The succeeding account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) confirms the nature of the territory on the “other side.”

“Thus, reading the stilling of the storm narrative in light of the Jonah narrative highlights Jesus as the commissioned herald,” Wilson concludes, “who is faithful to his calling to take God’s message to the gentiles and who carries it out with determination…” (page 6).

Wilson continues by observing that God sent the storm to get Jonah’s attention. Jesus confronts the storm which is not God’s ally in the narrative but rather working in opposition to the coming of God’s kingdom. The fact that Jesus uses exorcism language to address the stormy sea makes this contrast clear. While the storm is a part of God’s creation, it is being used by the Strong One to inhibit the expansion of the kingdom into Gentile environs and must be brought to heel.

On the one hand, the storm ceases when Jonah is pitched overboard as a sacrifice to an angry deity. On the other hand, the storm ceases when Jesus speaks words of command. No sacrifice is necessary here. Wilson notes that the language about the fear of the witnesses is almost identical in the LXX account of Jonah and in Mark 4. The sailors in Jonah witnessed the power of God in a secondhand fashion. The disciples, however, got an up close and personal view of the One whom even wind and the sea obey.

“Mark presents Jesus not using a ‘Jonah typology,’” Wilson argues, “but by drawing an ironic contrast between Jonah and Jesus in a way that makes clear the pre-eminence of Jesus” (page 8).

The description is terse and dramatic. The waves are driven by the wind, overtopping the gunwales, and threatening to swamp the boat. Jesus must have been sleeping on something up off the deck. Otherwise, he would have been soaked since the stern of the boat would be lower than the bow. “The ferocious storm, for the disciples,” Bailey notes, “produces a terrifying and life-threatening situation, similar to that frequently faced by ancient people traveling on the Mediterranean Sea” (page 26).

Jacobsen notes that Mark’s audience was facing their own existential storm – life after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. If Mark’s churches were indeed in Rome as tradition has it, then some of the hearers of this gospel would have witnessed the Roman triumphal parade as General Titus displayed the booty and the captive survivors taken from the burning and looting of Jerusalem.

Jacobsen’s reflection on this reality is worth quoting at length:

“The center of worship is destroyed; the cultural and religious center of the people no longer holds. Identities among Jewish Christians and other Jewish groups are all in play—and at a time when the tide of gentiles is rising. In the midst of all this chaos when the world-as-known is ending, here this Jesus is revealed not as one more therapist or miracle worker but as a revelation of God’s extraordinary cosmic purpose in the person of this ordinary Jesus, “just as he was” (verse 36) and even amenable like you and me to a good nap (verse 38).”

Jesus’ words to the wind and sea were in terms that one would use to address people overwrought with emotion. Get ahold of yourselves! Settle down! Jesus addresses the wind and the sea as persons rather than inanimate elements of a natural order. This makes sense because the Stilling of the Storm is not a “nature miracle.” It is, rather, yet another exorcism.

“Jesus doesn’t calm the storm as much as he overpowers it and brings it to heel,” writes Matt Skinner. “When he rebukes (epitimao) the violent wind and demands a still silence (phimoo) from the chaotic waters, it recalls him doing the same when he compelled unclean spirits (see the same verbs in Mark 1:25).”

“Jesus faces down the storm not with personal bromides (you have to face your fears, friends), but silences the storm and rebukes it (verse 39),” writes David Schnasa Jacobsen. “Those two verbs are exorcism words common to the rest of Jesus’ Kingdom ministry in Mark 1-3,” he observes. “The storm in verses 35-41 is cosmic, demonic, and worthy of Jesus’ scaled up efforts. As strange as it sounds,” Jacobsen argues, “Jesus is not offering therapy for our fears but an exorcism for a world out of whack.”

As Matt Skinner notes, Jesus offers no incantation or extraordinary action. He speaks and it happens. “You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains,” we read in Psalm 104:7 (NRSV). “At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder, they take to flight.” The only one who manages wind and wave with a word is the Lord of all Creation.

He’s in the boat with us, just as he is. How will we respond in the midst of our own wave-tossed journeys?

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.

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.

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.

Text Study for Mark 4:35-41 (Pt. 1); 4 Pentecost B 2021

Mark 4:35-41

“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.

Photo by JACK REDGATE on Pexels.com

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.

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.

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.