Whatever floats your boat...
Mark 4:35-41, 5:1-20
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
5:1They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus* asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus* to leave their neighbourhood. 18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. 21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake.
Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’
7 The sailors said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8Then they said to him, ‘Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ 9‘I am a Hebrew,’ he replied. ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ 10Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so. 11 Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quieten down for us?’ For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’
The Testament of Naphtali (Chapter 6)
Mark Davis notes, "There is some kinship between [the calming of the storm in Mark] and a story from “The Testament of Naphtali,” which is one of the books that was discovered among the Qumran Scrolls.1
1 And again, after seven days, I saw our father Jacob standing by the sea of Jamnia, and we were with him. 2 And, behold, there came a ship sailing by, without sailors or pilot; and there was written upon the ship, The ship of Jacob. 3 And our father saith to us: Come let us embark on our ship. 4 And when we had gone on board, there arose a vehement storm, and a mighty tempest of wind; and our father, who was holding the helm, departed from us. 5 And we, being tost with the tempest, were borne along over the sea; and the ship was filled with water, (and was) pounded by mighty waves, until it was broken up. 6 And Joseph fled away upon a little boat, and we all were divided upon nine planks, and Levi and Judah were together. 7 And we were all scattered unto the ends of the earth. 8 Then Levi, girt about with sack- cloth, prayed for us all unto the Lord. 9 And when the storm ceased, the ship reached the land, as it were in peace. 10 And, lo, our father came, and we all rejoiced with one accord.
Whatever floats your boat
When I lived with Pitjantjatjara folk, we mostly got along because, after all, we were all human beings. We worked around each other's cultural differences, and generally made sense of each other, and of what we were saying and doing. But occasionally we would walk into complete misapprehension of each other— I use the word deliberately. It was more than mis-understanding. There is deep anxiety involved when we simply lack the cultural hooks to make any sense of each other. I'm reminded of the general hilarity and community care happening in the airing of a domestic dispute I once witnessed in Aileron; children were playing in its midst, but the city white folk who arrived in the middle of it, were much closer to terrified than they were confused. (I note that, at the time, I was laughing at "Dave and Mabel," which was not fair; they had no idea what they were seeing, and were correct to be apprehensive.)
The story of the storm on the lake is a similar event. Mark D. Davis neatly sums up the preacher's dilemma.
Do we really think the wind and the sea have any sort of agency, whereby a command to them can be obeyed (or not)? Is a responsible preacher compelled to ask these sorts of questions? We can be sure that – even if we have our own hermeneutical apparatus for letting a story speak in literal language and believing it in symbolic language – some of our listeners will believe this story in literal language and others will dismiss it because it seems like we are believing it in literal language. What is more beneficial – to address these kinds of issues out loud or to let them fester underneath the surface?
For the folk in any congregation there are two issues. One is how to get on with the bloke in the next seat whose understanding of the world is incomprehensible to their own. The deeper issue is to comprehend that neither he nor I can fully access how the culture of Mark's time works. Mark 4 is one of those places of complete misapprehension, made worse because we can't talk with Mark. Yet I rather suspect Mark had the same problem; I expect that in his audience there were those who heard the story as literal truth, and those who saw it in other ways.
In sermons which touch on contentious areas of the church, I take care to point out that there are folk who sit on both sides of the issue concerning us— and in the middle— and many in each place are folk we love and respect. If it were not for this issue, we would embrace them without hesitation. Why are we now pulling away from each other because we differ in our understanding of one particular story about the man who loves us all?
I am unlikely to resist saying about this text that "If you think it literally happened, I'm fine with that. And I'm fine if you don't— whatever floats your boat." And, then, I'll encourage us to move on and look at what theology; that is what words about God, and the nature of God, the story is seeking to tell us.
In the Bible Study this week, we will look at the underlying cultural and interpretive issues, because there are great riches to be gained from this. We'll also consider the implications of Mark 5:1-21, clearly part of the same story, but excluded from the lectionary.
As a teenager I was sure the story was literally true. I believed Francis Schaeffer when he said somewhere that we can't have a story that is only understandable for those who have insight into the non-literal symbolism, so it must all be plain and literal, or words to that effect. I now know that stories all over the place work at two levels, and are read at two levels. It is the underlying technique of John's gospel. And Jonah is clearly a tall story, although in its time, as now, I bet some folk read it as literal truth. The only question was whether they saw its lessons on racism, and exclusion, and lack of mercy, which Jesus was still trying to teach when he told people to learn what it meant that God desired mercy and not sacrifice.
When we come to stories like the calming of the storm, I'm inclined to think John Dominic Crossan is close to the mark in his famous quotation:
My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. They knew what they were doing; we don't. (Who is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus pp 79)
My own understanding of this story flows from a time when 15 or 20 blokes were travelling in convoy late at night, well west of Uluru. We were lined up on the edge of the road when I remarked, "That bloke is travelling incredibly fast!" We all looked at the light, way of in the direction of Lake Amadeus and realised, together, that there are no roads out there. "Must be someone flying real low," said a voice. And then the "plane" turned 180 degrees and headed back south east. And turned again, and again, in a wild, impossibly high speed oscillation across dozens of miles. As we began to understand this was something outside of our experience, it turned toward us, bearing down with incredible speed from miles away. Twenty bladders dried up in instant unison! And then, it was gone.
Much later, camped at Nitayira Ngati for the night, people talked a long while around the fire. Some wondered if we had seen a River Snake, one of the "Dreaming" creatures. Panchu, sceptical, thought it had been a Min Min, hinting at some kind of natural phenomenon.
The thing is, I don’t believe in River Snakes. But the idea that a Min Min can move around at that kind of speed is ridiculous, too. We had no experience to explain what we had seen. We didn't know what we had seen. The issue was not which idea was true, but that we were discussing something that did not fly with any of our ideas about how the world worked.
I think Jesus is a light in the night, out past Uluru. He doesn't fit what we know about being human; in him we discover a new story about ourselves— a new way of being human, and the only way Mark can get around the lack of hooks— the lack of concepts— to hang his experience of Jesus upon, is to stretch reality beyond how we normally perceive and express it.
Of those who want a literal calming of a literal storm, I am inclined to ask gently, "What kind of Jesus do you want?" Do you want a wonder worker, a magician who holds secret power? Or do you want a human being who can show you how to live in the midst of terror and panic?" We can have one or the other.
35 On that day… This seems to be the same day he taught the parables. How does the storm connect to teaching in parables, or is the connection to the nature of the kingdom of which the parables speak?
Is there a connection to the misapprehension of the people?
11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret* of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’ …
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
when evening had come… It does not seem to be the end of a Sabbath, (cf Mark 1:33) so why is the evening mentioned? In my 2006 reflection, I said, "They are in the dark— evening has come."
he said to them… Jesus is the one in charge here. He takes the initiative.
‘Let us go across… Davis says that in Greek, Διέλθωμεν, which we translate as across comes from διέρχομαι, which also means to go through, pass through. I immediately think of passing through the Red Sea.
to the other side… The language of "othering." Cf Mark 5:1 It is the country of the Gerasenes. What is other about this country? "Both Gerasa and Gadara were cities to the east of the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan. They were both Gentile cities filled with citizens who were culturally more Greek than Semitic; this would account for the pigs in the biblical account." Wikipedia. Later, in his three feeding stories, Mark will make explicit that Jesus feeds Gentiles, too.
36And leaving the crowd behind… Going in the boat seems to be something "the crowd" cannot do. The boat has been Jesus protection from the crowd. Now it is the disciples who belong in the boat. Of course, we get the term for the body of the church, the nave, from the Latin navis for ship.
they took him with them in the boat… Do you see the change? It is now the disciples taking him… it has turned into a story of the nascent church on a journey! When we travel as church, the Christ is in the boat with us.
just as he was... This mysterious phrase. I'm not sure what to make of ideas that they took him even though he was so exhausted he fell asleep. Perhaps just as he was means he was an ordinary human being like them. Or that we get Jesus "as he is," rather than getting the Jesus we want. Ron Edmondson says
I love the phrase in this verse that says they took Jesus “just as he was”. While I am certain some theologian can impart wisdom to me about exactly what this means, I’m a simple-minded guy and it speaks volumes to me with what I do know of Scripture and my life experience. Too many times we try to take Jesus as we want Jesus to be, not as He intends for us to be.
Other boats were with him... And the grammar changes again… it is now no longer them but him… Even though the other boats, the other naves, may not seem to be with us, they are with him!
3A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped… This is not a trifling squall. Davis says,
I think it disingenuous for a pastor, on a calm Sunday morning when everyone is quietly listening, to treat the disciples' words as the silly expressions of those who don't really trust in Jesus' love. I think perhaps we ought to imagine ourselves and our entire congregation in an airplane that has lost its engines when we preach this text. Then we can explore panic and pious together.
This is extraordinarily important as a pastoral issue. When people are wondering aloud about how they can avoid killing themselves, or how they will eat, or where they will sleep, or how they will survive the abuse of their children or spouse… to make light of their terror and the impossible nature of their situation, is to add to the abuse. And it tells them that God does not understand. Most folk do not wonder aloud, but suffer our ease in silence.
38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him… We are surely meant to remember Jonah at this point. (Jonah 1:5-10)
The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’
We will notice that Jonah has no power over the storm. He is at the mercy of God, and of the sailors. By contrast, we read in Psalm 107:
23Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters;
24they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.
25For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.
26They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity;
27they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ end.
28Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;
29he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Unlike Jonah, Jesus seems extraordinarily God-like in this story. We might point out to people, however, that like Jonah 1:5-10, Jesus is thrown overboard— scapegoated. "Who then is this?" indeed! Why does he allow it?
‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Which surely references our feeling that we are alone in the boat! The word for perishing has the root meaning for destroy. It is the same word used in Mark 3:6, where the Pharisees plot to destroy Jesus.
39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ It is an image of complete power. He does nothing to help in the boat, no bailing or rowing; he rebukes the wind! There are a couple of things here. Peace is not your irenic lack of disorder. (Often written as eirēnē in the New Testament.) The Greek word (Σιώπα) has a strong sense of "be silent, hold one's peace". (Davis)
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. Davis points out that the word for “wind” here and in v.37 is ἀνέμῳ, not the pneuma of Acts 2. This wind is not something of God.
40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’… My first reading of this is: Have you no trust in me after all you have been taught and all you have seen? And I wonder if Mark is hinting that the disciples, too, are among those who have not yet understood the parables of Kingdom. We could say that the kingdom is like sailors on a small boat in a storm, unprepossessing indeed, a bit weedy really, (Mark 4:30-32) but travelling in the presence of God.
41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another… Davis points out that the word translated as afraid (δειλοί) is different from the word for fear in verse 41, where phobos, which we might recognise gives us the word phobia, is present twice: καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγα. He translates the verse as And they were afeared great fear…
The word for “timid,” δειλοί, is only used 3x in the NT - Here, in the parallel text of Matthew 8:26, and in Revelation 21:8, to indicate those who had fallen away from the faith. I use a word other than ‘fearful,’ only to distinguish this word from the two φόβος-related words used in the next verse. Ironically, ‘timid’ may be too timid of (sic) a word to capture the meaning of δειλοί based on its use in the Revelation text. It’s hard to say, since it is used so sparingly. (Davis)
The text implies that the problem for the disciples is not their fear, but a falling from faith, a losing sight of Christ in the crisis. I think we often imply that fear is somehow wrong. If we are not afraid in some situations, I think there is something wrong with us! Perhaps faithfulness is more like this:
When evil comes and appears to win, we humans have a variety of responses.
1. Some people say it must have been our fault; we deserved it in some way.
2. Some people say it was fate. Our number was up. We were just the unlucky ones. Que sera... whatever will be.... A Pitjantjatjara speaker might say "Tjaka..." it's just how things are.
3. The Christian word in this situation is "anyway." I will face the fear and do what is right anyway. Even if evil seems to triumph and I do not survive, what I have been is not in vain, and is not wasted. What I am and have been is not destroyed by this. So when fear and storm rise up, I will cross over to the other side, anyway.
Even if it destroys me, God will protect me anyway. This is where faith may seem absurd to the outsider. In some way, it will be alright, even if life is lost. (One Man's Web)
I suspect we might have this kind of faith in a moment of absolute fear and terror; Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"
‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ Davis:
I’m not going for shock value when I translate Τίς ἄρα οὗτός ἐστιν as “Who the hell is this?” ἄρα, [means] a prayer/supplication or an imprecation/curse/malediction. Furthermore, as an interrogative particle it implies anxiety or impatience on the part of the questioner.
The question is meant to point us towards the God-like nature of Jesus, but it is no calm and pious statement. There is something here like the light out from Uluru which turned towards us; something terrifying and outside our knowing. I connect the text with Wink's comment that we are not human; only God is human. To meet the fully human which comes to us through Jesus, is not all comfort! I suspect fully human stays afloat in times of terror in ways which would terrify us.
They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.
Jesus has just shown his power over another deep, unpredictable aspect of life, which is symbolised by the sea. (Luke 8: 22-25) Now he faces a new peril; something from “the abyss.” He overcomes this, too. The man is found clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus. (Prior: Jesus as Ripley)
Bill Loader says
The extraordinary image of Jesus commanding the elements has less to do with managing nature than it has to do with portraying the gospel as struggle against demonic and destructive powers. The gospel, according to Mark, is about Jesus coming to liberate people from such forces. It is to see Jesus as the embodiment of God’s power, the bearer of God’s Spirit, to challenge and overcome the deep and destructive powers which the furies of nature symbolised. It is a vision of Jesus with apocalyptic dimensions: here is the slaying of the dragon.
18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. 5:1 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake.
Jesus is now in full control. The lake has been subdued. He crosses back without incident!
There are some aspects of the story which I cannot leave untouched although I do not have the time to more fully address the text in Chapter 5. We have already been reminded of the story of Jonah, who became the scapegoat. The thing about Jonah is that he accepted he was guilty. He accepted the drawing of the lots. I noted in my comments on Luke Luke 8:26-39, that in
classic scapegoating behaviour, people are stoned. They are driven out from the city. They are thrown from high places. The sins of the people are laid upon the one individual.
We have already seen this in Luke Chapter 4:
29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
In Mark's story, the man is gashing or beating himself with stones. (Mark 5:5) He is stoning himself! He is accepting, in some way, the verdict of the mob.
Hammerton Kelly says of this:
He carries his persecutors inside himself in the classic mode of the victim who internalizes his tormentors. He even mimes the lapidation by which he was driven out, compulsively belaboring himself with stones and crying his own rejection. He imitates his persecutors to the extent that he becomes his own executioner in the mode of self-estrangement characteristic of the mimetic crisis.
It makes him the living dead: He has no clothes and lives in the tombs. (Bailie)
In the previous cycle of Luke, I had written that
This story is about the dis-integrating assault on life by naked, uncontrollable, mind un-hinging terror. It pits Jesus against un-reason-able evil.
3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’
10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
The name of the demon was Legion, “for many demons had entered him.” 30 A Roman legion consisted of some 5,000 men. "‘Legion’ was not [only] a term meaning many, but a designation for one of Rome’s armies. The one stationed in Palestine had a boar on its standard." (Loader) Rome is a part of the evil which afflicts this man. Empire, says Luke, partakes of, or is a carrier of, mind un-hinging, dis-integrating evil . Those of us who live under the protection of Empire, or who have given our allegiance to the new Empires, the multi-national corporations, should be brought up short by this. (Ibid)
Empire lives by the myth of redemptive violence and by the scapegoat. When we live within empire we accept its definition of us. We "stone ourselves." To be healed of this means that, like Jesus, we can cross the lake with ease. The storms which batter and destroy us are rebuked.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Mark 4:35-41 - The lake we call life (2015)
Mark 4:35-42 – Man Overboard (2012)
Mark 4:35-42 – Calm in the Storm (2012)
Mark 4:35-41 - Facing the Fear (2009)
Mark 4:35-41 - Rebuke the wind (2009)
Mark 4:35-41, (2006) Re-posted in 2009 as Mark 4:35-41 - Dead Calm in Deep Water
- The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Wikipedia)
The Testaments were written in Hebrew or Greek, and reached their final form in the 2nd century CE. In the 13th century they were introduced into the West through the agency of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, whose Latin translation of the work immediately became popular….
the book was [later] disparaged as a mere Christian forgery for nearly four centuries. Presently, scholarly opinions are still divided as to whether it is an originally Jewish document that has been retouched by Christians, or a Christian document written originally in Greek but based on some earlier Semitic-language material. Scholarship tends to focus on this book as a Christian work, whether or not it has a Jewish predecessor. [But, later in the same article on Wikipedia it says] A copy of the Testament of Naphtali was discovered at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls taken from Cave 4 (4Q215).