Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Who then is this? Do you trust him?

waves in darkness
Photo by Saxon White on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 23, 2024

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Commentary on Mark 4:35-41

Unlike Matthew (8:23–27) and Luke (8:22–25), Mark 4:35–41 clocks this episode at evening (verse 35), when a lake’s crossing would have been more hazardous. That some disciples took Jesus with them in a boat “just as he was” (verse 36b New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition) may suggest that no special precaution was taken for a journey fraught with peril.

Only Mark refers to “other boats … with him” (4:36c), but that escort fades away. Attention is riveted on the ship carrying Jesus. Even today, sudden squalls on the freshwater Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) can be terrifying. Mark depicts “a mighty blast of wind, and waves cascading into the boat, such that already the boat was filling” (verse 37, my translation). 

Tightening the narrative focus, Mark leads us into the ship’s stern to Jesus, “asleep on the cushion” (verse 38 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition). Throughout the Bible the sea is associated with chaos that only the Lord can master (Psalms 74:13–14; 89:8–9; 104:4–9; Jonah 1:4–16). Sleep is a typical posture of trust in God (Job 11:18–19; Psalms 3:5; 4:8). By contrast, the disciples’ strident appeal to Jesus—“Teacher, don’t you care that we are dying?” (Mark 4:38b, my translation)—recalls the wording in several psalms (35:23; 44:23–24; 59:4b). The correspondences with Psalm 107:23–30 are so striking that Mark 4:35–41 seems to be its christological reinterpretation.

Mark’s modifications of that scriptural template are noteworthy. Two harsh verbs express the sea’s stilling (4:39a). The first, “Be quiet!” (siōpa), was used to dramatize Jesus’ silencing of antagonists (3:4b); later, one of his questions will shush the Twelve (9:34). The second, “Shut up!” (pephimōso), is the same verb Jesus used to muzzle an unclean spirit (1:25). So also 4:39b: Jesus conquers diabolical forces that threaten human life.

Jesus’ riposte to his disciples is no less gruff: “Why are you such cowards [deiloi]? Do you still have no faith?” (4:40, my translation). Matthew (8:25–26) and Luke (8:24a, 25a) soften both the disciples’ cry to Jesus and his rejoinder. 

Mark uses this occasion to point up a lack of trust, or faith (pistis), among Jesus’ followers. To this point in the Gospel, he has called upon his listeners to entrust (pisteuete) themselves to the good news of the kingdom’s encroachment (1:15) and, in acknowledgment of some companions’ faith, has released a paralytic from his sins (2:5). Faith, or trust, and its lack (apistian) recur at critical points in Mark (5:34, 36; 6:6a; 9:24; 10:52; 11:22). As in 4:40, so also in 5:15, 33, and 36: pistis is contrasted with phobos (fear)—not the “fear of the LORD” that is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 4:7; 9:10), but dismay that degenerates into wimpishness.

In Psalm 107:30 the sailors for whom the Lord calms a tempest respond with gladness for their deliverance. By contrast, this group of seamen (Mark 4:41) “feared a great fear” (a literal translation), the awe with which mortals react to divine manifestations (Exodus 3:1–6; Isaiah 6:1–5; Jonah 1:10, 16; Luke 2:9). They ask one another who this Jesus is. At this pericope’s conclusion their question dangles, like that of the scribes about Jesus’ authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:7). 

Anyone familiar with Scripture knows that only divine power can quell chaotic waters (Genesis 1:2, 6–9; Job 38:8–11; Psalms 65:5–8; 93:3–4; Isaiah 51:10; Jeremiah 5:22). Doubtless, Mark would concur. His manifest interest is to leave the reader with the disciples at sea, wondering just who Jesus really is.

In Mark 4:35–6:6a faith acquires finer definition and deeper coloration. Trust is a human response to calamity. Occasions for faith in 4:35–41 and the stories that follow in 5:1–6:6a depict hopeless situations: peril at sea, possession by a demonic legion, chronic and incurable illness, sickness tipping over into death. The one episode in which Jesus’ restorative power is compromised is in his home synagogue, where people are beset by skepticism and offense (6:2–3).

Unlike those described in John’s Gospel (2:11; 4:46–54), Jesus’ mighty works in Mark do not stimulate faith. The sequence flows in reverse: first comes faith, fostering conditions in which God’s power to restore, executed by Jesus, can be realized (Mark 5:23, 34a). Even in 4:35–41, faith is at work to quell a deadly tempest: not faith among the disciples (4:40), but the trust of Jesus himself, peacefully asleep (4:38). Jesus’ mighty works are noteworthy, not merely for their happy endings, but for what they disclose about observers’ faith.

In Mark, pistis and apistia are not static. Faith waxes and wanes. It is neither a block of unassailable belief nor an arrow released irrevocably toward its target. Faith is an oscillating fan: veering from one extreme to another, caught for a time by weak mortals before slipping from their grasp, in need of Jesus’ reassurance. Because faith depends more on human volition than on cognition, its opposite in Mark 4:35–6:6a is not atheism, but cowardice (4:40) or fear (5:15, 33, 36): a lack of conviction in, or repudiation of, Jesus’ ability to wield God’s healing potency. Ultimately, in spite even of death (5:39; 11:21–22; 16:1–8), that power is unvanquished.

We live in frightening times. Pastors and congregants all: we’re right there with Jesus’ disciples in a boat being swamped, terrified that God has gone AWOL and Jesus doesn’t care. I encourage my students to expose our society’s fearmongers, driven by an obscene lust for power, to remind the church that Jesus—and no one else—is Lord, and that God remains dedicated to our welfare. This Sunday you can do the same. Ask the questions: Who then is this? Do you trust him?

He lay with quiet heart in the stern asleep;
Waking, commanded both the winds and sea.
Christ, though this weary body slumber deep,
Grant that my heart may keep its watch with thee.
O Lamb of God that carried all our sin,
Guard thou my sleep against the enemy.

—Alcuin of York (735–804)