Lectionary Commentaries for June 20, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Commentary on Mark 4:35-41
David Schnasa Jacobsen
Commentary on Job 38:1-11
God’s two responses to Job don’t answer the questions Job asked in his long and painful speeches, and neither do they defend God from Job’s brutally honest accusations. But they do reveal one of the deep mysteries of the cosmos. And maybe that’s enough for Job.
The story begins when Job loses everything for no apparent reason. According to the narrator and God, Job had been nothing but an upstanding and pious person (Job 1:1, 8), and God’s conversation with the divine accuser produced no evidence that Job was harboring any evil secrets (Job 1:6-12). When God took everything from Job, it was simply to see if Job would curse God (Job 2:5). The introduction to the book of Job thus asks a complex question: does Job only love God because God has blessed him with abundant possessions and a harmonious family life, or will he freely praise God in the absence of all these things (Job 1:9-11)?
The question shifts when Job starts to dialogue with his well-meaning friends. Job starts the conversation by issuing one of the most painful cries in the entire Bible—a beautiful and heartbreaking poem that imagines the un-creation of the world, echoing Genesis 1 (“that day—let there be darkness!”; Job 3:4; see also Genesis 1:3). Job questions both the order of the cosmos and the existence of divine justice because he did not deserve any of the tragedies that befell him and his family. In a world devoid of order and justice, Job declares that he would rather not have been born, and that the creation of an unjust, disordered world is an injustice in itself (Job 3:20-26). What kind of a God would preside over such an abomination?
Job’s friends respond with the kind of pious consolations that we all mutter when visiting the bereaved. They are, at least at first, respectful and kind (Job 2:11-13; 4:1-6). But above all, they seek to justify their preconceived notions of a just God (Job 5:12-16; 8:3) and an orderly cosmos (Job 4:7), which leaves them casting about for a clear and reasonable cause for all of Job’s misfortunes. They wonder about Job’s children’s potential sins (Job 8:4) and encourage Job to admit his own probable shortcomings and throw his case at the mercy of the divine judge (Job 5:8; 8:5-7), because he can grow from the discipline of God (Job 5:17-21). Job doesn’t know everything (Job 8:8-10), so he should submit to the wisdom of the ages past, curated by his faithful companions.
Job’s responses are filled to the brim with caustic honesty (Job 6:14). After denying his friends’ accusations, he wonders about taking God to court—because in a courtroom, a judge might listen carefully to the testimony of each witness and attempt to reach an impartial verdict (Job 23:1-12). Job hopes that God might be found guilty of cosmic injustice and disorder. Yet the only court of law that might try God is the divine courtroom itself, where God is the judge and the accuser (Job 9:15-19). Job even goes so far as to deny that there is any divine justice at all—something unheard of in any other ancient Near Eastern text (Job 9:22). While thinking about the impossibility of taking God to court, Job begins to dream about a divine intermediary that would arbitrate between Job and God, defending Job from God’s punishing attacks in the meantime; this would allow Job to speak to God face to face, and perhaps receive a response (Job 9:32-35; 16:18-22; 19:25-27).
Eventually, God does respond to Job face to face, but it is not quite what Job wanted. The encounter begins with a whirlwind (Job 38:1), a dangerous disturbance in the natural world that often presages a divine appearance, and is often taken to represent divine judgment (see also Exodus 19:16; Isaiah 29:6; 66:15; Jeremiah 4:13; Nahum 1:3). God tells Job to get ready for combat (Job 38:3a), which Job had anticipated (Job 9:17). But then God unexpectedly clarifies that the confrontation will be about knowledge, not physical feats of strength (“I will ask you and you will make me understand”; Job 38:3b). Many have read the divine speeches as the arrogant boasting of a bully who won’t be challenged, but as Kathleen O’Connor points out, God does engage with Job concerning the beauty of creation throughout the encounter—suggesting that God is not acting as a bully, but rather as “a deity who is wild, beautiful, free, and deeply upsetting.”1
Job’s accusations in Job 3-27 focused on God’s ordering of the cosmos and God’s sense of justice: as Choon-Leong Seow has pointed out, God’s two responses seem to be deeply connected to Job’s first lament in Job 3, and they take each of Job’s main accusations in turn.2 God’s first speech (Job 38:1-40:2) addresses the order of the cosmos, and God’s second speech addresses the issue of justice (Job 40:6-41:34). Instead of the friend’s simple apologetic justifications, however, God’s response changes the terms of the entire conversation.
God begins with a very common ancient Near Eastern motif: that the divine beings built the cosmos just like an architect builds an impressive building, such as a temple. God laid the foundation of the cosmos (Job 38:4) and measured everything carefully with tools (verse 5), expertly laying cornerstones and sinking massive pillars down to the bedrock to keep the cosmos from shifting unpredictably (verse 6). At the laying of the foundation, all the angelic beings sang in celebration—what a dramatic and moving image (verse 7)!
The metaphor of “God as a divine architect of the cosmos” is one of the oldest found in the written record. It occurs elsewhere in the Bible (see also Proverbs 8:22-31), but it can be found in Sumerian texts written not long after the origins of writing itself—and thousands of years before Job was written. Typically, this metaphor communicates the unimpeachable craftsmanship of the cosmos and its unquestionable order. But in Job 38:8-11, YHWH introduces a new character and a new motif into the old metaphor that upends its well-worn meaning.
In verses 8-9, YHWH is suddenly imaged as a mother giving birth to the sea and quickly making clothes for it out of the clouds and swaddling it in the deep, beautiful colors of the night sky. In ancient Near Eastern literature, the sea was often imagined to be a chaotic monster who threatened the stability and order of the cosmos (see also Psalms 74:13-14; 89:10-14; and the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish).3 The gods were often understood to have engaged in mortal combat with such monsters to defend the cosmos. But here, YHWH births the source of chaos and nurtures it. Chaos exists as a part of God’s ordered cosmos, even a treasured part of it: yet God has prescribed limits for it, making a sort of playpen for the powerful infant to exercise its chaotic powers without endangering the stability of the world (verses 10-11).
There are as many interpretations of this text as there are people on the planet, but here is mine: God explains to Job that the universe necessarily contains chaos within it. The unpredictability of life is not evil, nor is it evidence of God’s disorder or failures. Rather, the image of God giving birth and nurturing the sea-monster underscores the generativity of chaos as an integral part of God’s cosmos. That is, life is a process of expanding and unfolding and growth, but it also must include death and receding and collapsing. Growth and decay are two sides of the same coin. For growth to occur, some things must fail. For there to be new orders, the old orders must tumble. For there to be space for new life, some things must die. Like a garden transitioning from summer to winter vegetables, newness and change requires overturning and seeming disorder.
This does not deny the existence of moral evil—God admits that it exists in the same speech (verses 12-15). But chaos isn’t exactly the same as immorality: the chaos of lightning strikes, for example, are a natural and necessary part of the world’s construction, and aren’t supposed to be understood as judgment (except in rare cases, like 1 Kings 18). God has sewn chaos into the fabric of the cosmos on purpose—not to punish us or terrorize us, but because this is the necessary condition of life itself, and without it none of us would exist. Nature needs disorder for its order to function. Without the seemingly chaotic patterns of weather and animal life and even bacteria and viruses, we wouldn’t have a chance of survival. And yet, those same chaotic forces can, at times, threaten our very existence.
This is a mystery. It is not explained or defended; God merely asserts it. The world, full of beauty and creativity and danger, seems not to have been constructed merely for human consumption. The story is bigger than us, and none of us are the main characters (see Job 38:12-39:30). God does not so much answer Job’s questions as re-frame them and offer Job a new way to see the world in which his grief and his experiences are not the end or the entirety of the story.
In God’s second divine speech (Job 40:6-41:34), God describes two chaos monsters living at the core of the earth with admiration, even wonder: Behemoth (Job 40:15-24) and Leviathan (Job 41:1-34). And in one of the only references to human beings in the content of the divine speeches, God tells Job to observe Behemoth “which I made just as I made you” (Job 40:15). Perhaps God is subtly pointing out that humans are chaos monsters, too: we are unpredictable and unscripted, and our own freedom can generate abundant life—or bring about terrible destruction and suffering.
The divine speeches do not answer Job’s questions—or ours, most likely. But they give us a glimpse of the deepest and richest of all of God’s storehouses of knowledge. Lest we imagine that the divine speeches exist to stop us from asking any more questions, God seems intent on engaging Job in an actual dialogue, and doesn’t let Job’s mealy mouthed response to the first divine speech end the conversation (Job 40:1-5). In that same way, I hope we find in God’s speeches an invitation to engage in an ongoing dialogue with God and with each other about order, justice, and the structure of creation itself.
- Kathleen O’Connor, “Wild Raging Creativity: The Scene in the Whirlwind,” in A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick Miller, edited by Nancy Bowens and Brent Strawn (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 171-179; 173.
- Choon-Leong Seow, Job 1-21: Interpretation and Commentary, Illuminations (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 100-104.
- Carol Newsom, The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 244.
Alternate First Reading
Commentary on 1 Samuel 17:57—18:5, 10-16
[Note this semi-continuous first reading is one of two options for this lectionary date. Find past commentaries on 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49.]
“And Saul feared David” (1 Samuel 18:12): Witnessing the tragedy of a ruler unfolding
The tragedy of the failing ruler Saul is the centerpiece of this pericope. Clinging to power, Saul finds himself threatened by the success of this new rising star, his young courtier. God’s selection and the subsequent success shape the scenes at Saul’s court. The tragic main scene offers an intimate insight into the isolated ruler’s troubled soul (1 Samuel 18:10-12). The young courtier’s introduction at the court, the warm bonds between him and Jonathan, and his soothing, therapeutic presence shape counter-images.
“David was successful … and God was with him” (1 Samuel 18:14)
God’s freedom to choose David to be the rising star in Judah shapes this storyline and it invites us foremost to rejoice together with David. The gruesome war trophy of the giant’s head, dripping with blood, gives an unknown lad from Bethlehem access to the royal court where he is capable to succeed and come to honor, but also to encounter how the dynamics at the court of the luckless ruler turn against him. His ongoing success (1 Samuel 18:5) secures his standing at the court and exemplifies God’s freedom of election. The pericope closes with this theme of David’s success as a faithful leader to whom God bestows even more success, beyond the fights he won. The more tasks he takes on, the more help and reassurance he receives. Our pericope characterizes the hero as a pious and faithful king and is a prequel to David’s forthcoming, more thoroughly successful warfare against the Philistines (see also 2 Samuel 5:17-21).
A tragic destiny that seduces to drawing sinful consequences
As the pericope describes the ruler’s increasing isolation as well as his misery and depression, it also illustrates his failure on a personal level by way of viciously planning revenge. The story details how Saul, far from a villain, first can cope with defeat and rejection. However, it also points out how his tragic destiny gets the best of him; Saul’s despair finally misleads him to channel his anger in sinful ways. Once he draws the spear against David (1 Samuel 18:11), Saul becomes guilty of intentionally attempting murder (Exodus 21:14; Deuteronomy 19:1-12). God’s election of David as future ruler leaves Saul fearful. We witness both the tragedy of Saul and his entanglement in vicious acts. The stories between Saul and David present a variation of Saul’s drastic attempt to kill David (1 Samuel 19-26).
Our pericope and the varying storylines in the same vein invite us not to whole-heartedly dismiss Saul as a classical villain. Rather, our pericope in particular seeks to gain compassion for Saul as an example of a ruler living in the shadow of God’s rejection. It presents the anxiety of an anxious soul eaten up by David’s success. Yet beyond this, it also presents Saul as an example for making bad, misguided decisions, so much that he finally sets up a dangerous quest for David. Saul seeks to dispatch him as a commander in war (1 Samuel 18:13) in the hope that he might die. This is yet another form in which Saul tries to harm David, who yet succeeds and whose accomplishments are grounded in Yahweh’s help and trust in Yahweh.
Saul’s character may sharpen our view of the ways we might be living with our own destiny in light of God’s blessings of others. Saul’s challenge of the spirit-gifted David invites us to think whether and how we may be taking revenge on others in light of our own destiny and whether by doing so we in fact may betray our faith’s principles. The stories of Saul’s pursuit of David in 1 Samuel 16-26 are examples that express the same theme of hatred that causes Saul to throw the spear against his opponent.
Reassurance and rejection even through a viciously expanded quest (1 Samuel 18:13-15)
Historically, these narratives at the court are embedded in Israel’s and Judah’s rivalry. David’s dynastic legacy and Saul’s incapability of establishing his house serve as the storyline’s backbone. God’s free election of a ruler unfolds as David’s ongoing success.
David’s therapeutic efforts against an evil spirit
When David plays before Saul, he is able to soothe the desperate ruler from the ecstatic rave that the evil spirit causes as it haunts the king (1 Samuel 18:10). David’s calming presence is a token of the one-sided relationship between both Saul and David. God’s election and Saul’s rejection must be lived out separately. The spirit symbolizes God’s presence in David’s life and the election of God. It poses the question of whether Saul can indeed be fully held responsible for his attempts at taking revenge on David. Another interpretive question is whether David’s therapy for the depressed king presents the image of the pious, singing courtier, to which the headings of the David-Psalms (Psalm 3-41, 51-72) allude. David’s beneficial presence at the court leads to his achievements as a military leader and, taken altogether, it paints the image of a rounded, successful, and heroic life.
“…and Jonathan loved him like his own soul” (18:1, 3): Male friendship or romantic love?
Our pericope briefly and clearly describes how Jonathan is drawn to David (1 Samuel 18:1). It rejoices in the affection between the two men, describing their friendship as carefree. When it adds the official covenant and the symbolic exchange of the royal rope and armor (1 Samuel 18:3-4), it reckons with the serious social space of the court, in particular, that Jonathan is a representative of the king. David later responds to this jaunty description of the same-gender affection of Jonathan in his love song for the deceased friend: “your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26.) We can easily imagine that priestly circles in Israel may have taken issue with same-gendered love (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), yet 1 Samuel 18:1-5 openly celebrates the affection between David and Jonathan as one joyful aspect of the life of the successful, chosen, young King David.
Commentary on Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
Psalm 107 opens with the words:1
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
And gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
From the north and from the south (or, sea) (Psalm 107:1-3).
It seems undoubtedly to have been placed at the beginning of Book Five as an answer to the closing words of Book Four:
Save us, O LORD our God,
and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise (Psalm 106:47).
Psalm 107, a community hymn of praise, was most likely a liturgy of thanks offered by worshipers at a festival at the temple in Jerusalem. Four groups of people appear in its verses, together representing, perhaps, the four points of the compass and the “redeemed of the LORD” mentioned in verse 2.
Verses 4-9 tell of a group of wanderers, lost in the desert, who finally arrive at their destination. East of Palestine lays a vast desert which separates it from the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia. Few travelers in the ancient Near East dared any attempt to traverse this terrain.
Verses 10-16 tell the story of prisoners who are set free. The West is the place where the sun sets, the deathly place of darkness in which the sun dies every night as it makes its journey over the earthly realm. Like the ones wandering lost in the wilderness, the ones dwelling in darkness cry out to God, and God leads them out of darkness and the shadow of death and tears to pieces their bonds.
Verses 17-22 tell of “sick” persons who are healed. The word translated “sick” actually means “foolish ones.” The people of the ancient Near East associated sickness with foolishness or sin and understood it as God’s punishment for sin (see Psalms 32:1-5 and 38:3, 5). In the books of the prophets, the North, the third direction mentioned in 107:3, was often depicted as the direction from which the punishment of God came to the ancient Israelites.
The fourth and last vignette of Psalm 107, verses 23-32, tells the story of a group of sailors who are saved from shipwreck. It begins, in verse 23, “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters” and continues, in verse 26, “they mounted up to the heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity.”
The compass point connected with the fourth vignette is rendered in the majority of modern English translations as “the south” (verse 3). The Hebrew text of verse 3, though, clearly has “from the north and from the sea. The difference between the Hebrew text and the English translations seems to be a felt need to have the psalmist refer to the four compass directions. In addition, the word for “south,” (that literally means “right”—”south” when one faces the sunrise) is an easy emendation from the Hebrew word for “sea.”
The sea represented another real threat to those who lived in the ancient Near East. Merchant ships sailing out of the Phoenician ports across the Mediterranean Sea often encountered difficulties in its unpredictable waters (recall the treacherous journeys of Paul in the book of Acts and the story of Jonah). Verses 25-29 depict God as the ruler of the sea, able to command its waters to do his bidding (see also Psalms 29:34; 65:7; 89:9-10; 95:5). A storm on the waters (verses 25-27) leads the sailors to cry out to God (verse 28). God then calms the waters and give the sailors rest “in the haven of their pleasure” (verse 30).
Each of the four vignettes of Psalm 107 follows a precise format:
a description of the distress (verses 4-5, 10-12, 17-18, 23-27)
a prayer to the Lord (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
details of the delivery (verses 7, 14, 19-20, 29)
an expression of thanks (verses 8-9, 15-16, 21-22, 30-32)
In each vignette, the “prayer to the Lord” and the “expression of thanks” are identical:
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress (verses 6, 13, 19, 28)
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind (verses 8, 15, 21, 31)
The repetition of words in the vignettes provides further evidence that the psalm may have been used in a liturgical setting, as a liturgy of thanks, in which groups of worshipers recited the words of Psalm 107 antiphonally with presiding priests.
Are the four vignettes actual accounts of deliverance by the Lord sung in celebration at a festival? Or is the psalm purely a literary composition, with the four groups representing, in the words of James L. Mays, “all those who have experienced the redemption of the Lord”? Whatever the original Sitz im Leben of Psalm 107, its placement in the Psalter by the shaping community renders it as a hymn celebrating deliverance.
We may never find ourselves literally wandering in a desert wasteland, forced to dwell in a place of deep darkness, sick to the point of death, or caught in a tumultuous storm at sea, but as James Mays points out, each of us have or will face those times when we need desperately the redeeming hand of God. Psalm 107 provides a model for how to handle those times— recognize the situation you are in; cry out to God and tell God what you need; accept the deliverance that God brings; and then give thanks to God.
- Commentary first published on this site on June 24, 2018.
Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Jane Lancaster Patterson
“Our heart is wide open to you.”
Paul’s voice in 2 Corinthians reminds me of a person in a long marriage that has become frayed and contentious, and who has reached the point where nothing will do but a raw and honest expression of his heart and commitments. While 1 Corinthians contains some of the most significant passages for understanding Paul’s practical theology, it is in the patchwork of letters that form 2 Corinthians that he reveals inner dimensions of his life of prayer, and the lengths he is willing to go to convey his passionate love and concern for this community.
As servants of God
Second Corinthians 6:1-13, with its emotionality and autobiographical references, appears to concern Paul’s individual experiences, and yet the plural “we” also points to the fact that Paul was probably never alone in his ministry.
- The opening to 2 Corinthians mentions Timothy as the co-author, though it is hard to know whether Timothy’s presence pertains to all the pieces of the current letter. And yet there must be a very profound relationship bound up in this “we” who have experienced such a “great endurance” described in 6:4-10.
- As Paul says of him in the letter to the Philippians, “Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the Gospel” (Philippians 2:22).
- The close relationship between Paul and his co-workers is evidence of the characteristic way in which people understood themselves in the first century: as primarily persons-in-community, not as autonomous individuals.
- Paul’s account of extraordinary courage and willingness to suffer points to the reality that living the gospel is not solitary work; it takes solidarity to stand up against a culture that does not respect the values of God’s justice, and to endure its punishment.
Grace, the power of God
The passage opens with a negative command: do not receive the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1). And this command sounds continuously as the ground-note of 2 Corinthians 6:3-10. For Paul, grace is the power of God, poured out in and through the faithful, to bring life in the face of a destructive culture.
- Paul does not shy from describing in vivid detail the suffering of the apostles as a sharp critique of the wider culture that sees the gospel as so threatening that it must be contained by beating, imprisoning, and starving those who proclaim it.
- Without video footage to show the Corinthians what he means, Paul must use language so vividly that they can see and smell and feel what he and his companions have undergone as God’s servants.
The whole astonishing performance is intended to help the Corinthians read reality more accurately:
- Where from the outside they see the apostles’ suffering, much of it at the hands of authorities, they must learn to perceive the believers’ interior strength, shaped by intentional practices of patience, kindness, holiness, self-restraint, love, and the courage to tell the truth no matter the consequences.
- Where they see apostles lacking the respect of the world, they must be able to discern their worthiness in God’s sight.
- Where they see apostles treated as impostors by the wider culture, they must be able to discern the truth that the brave are giving their lives to.
- Within a wider culture whose values are upside-down, Paul is trying to help this community of Christ-believers to see how rejoicing might be hidden within the sorrow that comes from truly engaging injustice; to see the riches hidden in intentional poverty; to have the confidence to see how fullness of life may be hidden within the willingness to risk one’s life for the gospel.
Far from telling the Corinthians that they’re supposed to bring in God’s kingdom through their own efforts, Paul draws them to attend to where the power of God is already on the move in precisely in the places they perceive as shameful or threatening. This passage contains much that would be helpful in our own context, as we seek a faithful way to engage the day’s news.
- Where might we train our hearts and minds to discern the power of God moving in the very places that scare us?
- Whose dignity is being revealed in the midst of suffering?
- Where are the values of our culture upside-down, and how can we develop communities that see things aright?
Two other important words point us toward the depth of contemplative spiritual practice that undergirds Paul’s ability to see reality as God sees it. The first is in reference to the quotation from Isaiah: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2b).
- A good rule of thumb when a quotation from the Hebrew scriptures appears in the New Testament is to look it up and read the whole passage. The author usually intends for the reader to recognize the full context of the brief quotation.
- Isaiah 49:8-13 describes the renewal of Israel after the return from exile, when prisoners will be released, the hungry fed, and the land apportioned to those whose land was stolen from them.
- Speaking directly from what has been revealed in his practices of prayer, Paul speaks, “Now is that day.” In effect, he folds sacred time over on itself, revealing that this day in Corinth under Roman rule is the same as that day when the exiles were freed: God’s salvation is pouring forth. How will you respond?
The second show-stopping word is behold: “[treated] as dying, and behold—we are alive” (2 Corinthians 6:9). The contemplative writer Maggie Ross speaks of the importance of the word “behold” in the scriptures as a kind of signpost for stopping and allowing a space for the mystery of God’s presence in and through the text.1
- Here, Paul’s command to “behold” calls us to stop and take a breath in awe of the full extent of what is meant by the grace of God: the power to bring life out of what is regarded as dead.
- “Behold—we are alive” is an ever-fresh invitation, coming across the centuries to call us also into the counter-cultural mystery of “having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
- “Behold” invites us back to the initial plea of this passage, not to receive the grace of God in vain, but to enter into the interior spaciousness of Paul’s own practice of contemplative prayer (see also 2 Corinthians 12:2 and following), where words cease and God’s grace becomes—not comprehended by the mind—but received.
- The interior space Paul creates for encountering God in prayer is the foundation of his willingness to risk himself completely for God’s mission of reconciliation in the world.
- Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume I: Process. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014.
Jesus stills a storm while on a boat at night with his disciples in Mark 4:35-41. Does it sound like just another miracle story? I don’t think so.
We start by remembering the context of Mark 4. Until now, Mark’s readers have been working through parable after parable about sowing and seeds. Yet Mark is not giving agricultural lessons; Mark interprets the work of the Word and the seed as a mystery that pertains to the apocalyptic Kingdom of God. Ever since Mark 1:14-15, Jesus has been preaching the gospel of God and the coming of the Kingdom that brings with it repentance and belief in the good news. The seeds are just Mark’s apocalyptic way of describing a divine reign that is sure to be coming and will grow and spread like a mustard seed.
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. That means that this is not just another boat ride, but the apocalyptic boat ride from hell. This is not just another miracle either, but an apocalyptic revelation of Jesus’ identity.
On the one hand, this boat ride from hell means that the trouble the disciples are facing on the boat is not just existential (the storms of life, as it were), but cosmic. Like most apocalypses, Mark’s Gospel sees the trouble Jesus faces as cosmic in scope. As if to underline this fact, 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). Those two verbs are exorcism words common to the rest of Jesus’ Kingdom ministry in Mark 1-3. The storm in verses 35-41 is cosmic, demonic, and worthy of Jesus’ scaled up efforts. As strange as it sounds, Jesus is not offering therapy for our fears but an exorcism for a world out of whack.
On the other hand, this apocalyptic revelation means that the point of the boat miracle should be a disclosure. Apocalypse means “revelation” and so this stilling of the storm should tell us something more. The focus here, however, is not the mysterious Kingdom of God, but the mysterious Jesus himself. The fact that Jesus stills the storm with a word of exorcistic rebuke also tells us something about him. The way there is a little difficult. In the midst of the tossing waves of the storm, the disciples refer to Jesus as “Teacher” (Mark 4:38). After witnessing the stilling of the storm, all the disciples have is deep awe (feared a great fear, says the Greek in verse 41) with deep questions. Who is this? Who is the one whom even wind and sea obey?
Discerning readers of Mark know that the disciples are slow learners and that the outsiders are usually the ones to confess faith. Here, just as at the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel in Mark 16:8, it is left up to the readers to discern who Jesus is when his own disciples fall short or fail. This Jesus, who was “just as he was” in the boat, was way more than ordinary. He was in his weakness a disclosure, a revelation, an apocalypse of the living God among us. Or as Mark puts it in the first verse of chapter one: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”
Again, context is everything with Mark. Mark’s Gospel is committed to writing about the time of the destruction of the Temple around 70 CE. There are storms and there are storms. But this one is huge. 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).
As we interpret the revelatory gospel in this apocalyptic moment, we can’t just turn to our personal therapeutics of faith. More is at stake and the wound is far deeper than just me, my superego, and my id. This wound reflects a kind of cultural trauma, a displacement that asks deep questions that touch on our life together and the shared forces that threaten to upend us all. Please note that the disciples were all in a boat, a beautiful symbol of the church that stands to this day. Even in churches being emptied out by COVID-19, many of their ceilings look like the bottom of a boat. Churches often even call their main sections a nave, a reminder of their shared maritime context. It’s not just me; we disciples as a group are on the boat ride from hell.
But before we constrict our ecclesiologies too tightly around this text, it is sometimes important to remember that we are not the only ones floating together on the stormy sea. In a passing comment at the end of verse 36, Mark notes that “Other boats were with him.” Whatever terrors and revelations that await us in this apocalyptic boat ride and mysterious epiphany of Jesus, it’s good to know that other boats are there, too. And perhaps as we consider the intersectional nature of suffering in a cultural traumatic moment, it is good to note that though we are in the same storm, we are not necessarily in the same boat.