Commentary on Mark 4:35-41
The first half of Mark is a seaside tale. Jesus’ ministry begins as he is walking along the Sea of Galilee.
There are references to Jesus’ walking beside, crossing, or approaching the sea in each of the first eight chapters of this Gospel, and Jesus mentions it in his teaching in 9:42 and 11:23. In 3:9 he has asked the disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the risk that the crowd pressing upon him for healing and exorcism might crush him. Then in 4:1 there is indeed such a very large crowd that he gets into a boat on the sea and teaches from there while the crowd listens from the land.
As our reading begins, we have just heard Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. Now it is evening on that day when Jesus has taught from the boat, and he says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” As they are crossing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they are also crossing other boundaries, into Gentile territory, where they will be met immediately by a man possessed by a legion of demons rushing at them from the tombs. Then the next crossing in 5:21 takes them into encounters with the silent desperation of a hemorrhaging (and, therefore, unclean) woman and the chaotic grief of a household in which a little girl has died.
Jesus crosses many social and spiritual boundaries. He eats with unsuitable people, breaks Sabbath laws, associates with the unclean and heals them at the wrong times, and communicates with unclean spirits. Crossing to the other side with Jesus may be a risky, unpredictable proposition, and in this passage, the wind and the sea create a visual manifestation of the dangers of being in the boat with him.
A great windstorm arises in this nighttime crossing. The panicked cries of the disciples, echoing the urgent pleas of the Psalmist in Psalm 107:28-29 (a reading for this Sunday; see also 44:23), offer a stark contrast to the assured, peaceful sleep of Jesus (see, for example, Psalm 4:8).
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The word for perishing, or being destroyed, occurs in the active voice in 8:35: “Those who wish to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” It has already occurred in 3:6, where the Pharisees are conspiring with the Herodians to destroy Jesus. The dangers of perishing are real, but taking up the cross of Jesus turns out to be the safest, most life-affirming option. It is the option of faith.
Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to simmer down; the first word (“Peace!” in the NRSV) is a verb meaning be silent; the second (“Be still!” in the NRSV) means literally be muzzled. The word for rebuke is used when Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit in 1:25 (also 3:12 and 9:25). And the unclean spirit in 1:25 is also told to be muzzled. In 1:27, the crowd marvels that even the unclean spirits obey this one who teaches with authority, and here the disciples marvel that even the wind and the sea obey their teacher. “What is this?” the crowd asks (1:27). “Who is this?” ask the disciples here who now understand that it is not just a question of some power at work in him but of something about who he actually is.
The resemblance to exorcism underscores the extent of the threat and also suggests that Jesus’ effective rebuke of the wind and the sea is another instance of his power over all evil. His teaching of the kingdom word is authoritative because the kingdom is also most powerfully at hand in him.
“Why are you still afraid?” Jesus asks the disciples. “Have you still no faith?” The word translated afraid here might also be translated cowardly (as in Revelation 21:8). In 4:41, the phrase translated awe in the NRSV literally says that the disciples feared a great fear. That great fear, or awe, is not necessarily the opposite of faith although their cowardice during the storm seems perhaps to be. That fear of 4:41 is what is experienced by the healed woman in 5:33-34 when she comes forward in fearing and trembling to tell Jesus the whole truth and is immediately commended for her great faith. On the other hand, when the people are afraid at the sight of the demoniac made whole in 5:15-17, their fear leads them to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. And when the women in 16:6 say nothing to anyone about the empty tomb, it is because they are afraid.
It is not inappropriate to fear the Lord. If we have the slightest idea of his glory, it is appropriate but also, in a sense, irrelevant. What seems to matter is what we do in spite of or because of that awe.
In 6:45-52, a passage with many parallels to this one, the disciples have another chance to experience the power of Jesus over the winds. There, as here, they have left a crowd behind and set out at Jesus’ command for the other side. It is again evening, and where Jesus is asleep in 4:38, in 6:46-47 he is on the shore in prayer. But he sees when his own are struggling and comes to them. Then the wind ceases, and again they do not understand. Finally in 6:53-56, as after this first crossing, what they find on the other side is suffering people rushing at Jesus from all sides and, like the woman in 5:27, reaching out to touch his cloak.
Leaving the crowd behind and following Jesus does not guarantee us, as individuals or as a church, a storm-free life, and we, like the disciples and the Psalmists, may sometimes find ourselves crying out, “Wake up! Do you not care?” Even when we make it through the storms, following Jesus may well take us straight into encounters with the worst pain and suffering of the world, the places where Jesus’ powerful touch is most needed.
Even for us, who know the end of the story, which the disciples in their storms do not, crossing to the other side at Jesus’ command may try our faith, but it also puts us in a position to experience the stilling of our storms, the restoration of the broken and the marginalized, and the transformation of death to life.
Perhaps, knowing what we know as post-resurrection followers, we can recognize that even in the midst of the fiercest storms of life, the one who is Lord of all nature and binder of Satan is present, brooding over us and the world, with peace and power and healing in his wings.