Proper 7 · Mark 4:35-41 · June 21, 2009
By Paul Robinson
Preface: Sometimes a boat is just a boat
Although Mark’s account of the stilling of the storm did not occur in any historic lectionary, Matthew’s version of the story was the traditional Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. So the story has been preached routinely in the history of the church, but not as we might expect. A brief investigation of sermons on the text shows that preachers commonly used it to discuss not the person of Christ but the church and its trials.
Tertullian was likely first to equate the boat that carried Jesus and his disciples with the church. In On Baptism 12, he ridiculed the suggestion that the disciples had undergone a sort of baptism when the waves washed over them during the storm. Then he added, “That litde ship presented a type of the Church, because on the sea, which means this present world, it is being tossed about by the waves, which means persecutions and temptations, while our Lord in his longsuffering is as it were asleep, until at the last times he is awakened by the prayers of the saints to calm the world and restore tranquility to his own” (translation by Ernest Evans, SPCK, 1964). Tertulliano idea that the boat is the church and the storm the troubles it faces would cast a long shadow on the history of interpretation.
Even Martin Luther and C. F. W Walther succumbed to this seemingly irresistible bit of allegory in sermons for Epiphany 4. Luther, after briefly retelling the story from the text, describes the troubles the church faced historically, using the example of the Arian controversy, and then the troubles faced by the church in his day. “So, too,” he says, “we receive tremendous blows from the Enthusiasts and Anabaptists” (WA 49:334). Walther goes even farther than Luther in his spiritual interpretation of the boat, basing his theme and entire outline on it. The theme— Christ’s Ship on the Sea of Galilee, a Picture of the Church in Our Time—is divided into three parts: a picture of the danger the church is in; a picture of its members; a picture of the protection under which it stands (Amenkanisch-Lutherische Evangelien Postille, Concordia Publishing House, p. 79.).
Normally I prefer to mine sermons from the past for good examples of preaching, but these present an important cautionary lesson not to leap over the point of the text to an application derived from it—even if that application is supported by traditional interpretations. (By the way, both Luther and Walther composed excellent sermons on the church. I just wish they had used a different text.) The problem with using the boat as a type of the church is that the boat is not the point of the story, nor is the storm. The boat is a prop and the storm part of the supporting cast for the main actor, Jesus. The point of the text is that Jesus has power over the storm; and to realize who Jesus is. So even though preaching on the text may come around to the dangers we face as individual believers or as the church, preachers should arrive at that point through Jesus as portrayed in the text and not apart from or despite the point of Mark’s, or Matthew’s, or Luke’s account. See, for example, the interpretation of Joel Marcus in number four below.
The truth about Jesus delivered by this narrative is discussed here under three headings: Jesus is Lord of creation; Jesus is a Lord to be feared; Jesus is the Lord who saves.
Jesus is Lord of creation
Jesus commands the storm to stop with his words. Through this story Mark shows what the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed states with the phrase “by whom all things were made.” In the chapters prior to this text, Jesus had already demonstrated his power over the demonic. Now he demonstrates his power over creation, over the destructive forces of the natural world. In doing so, he uses the same word to rebuke the storm that he had used against the demon in 1:25. This word is stronger than the traditional translation be still suggests. Shut up would be a good colloquial alternative. The result of this utterance is the storm obeys immediately. Utter stillness, rather than a gradual dying down of the wind and waves, shows that the power of the Creator is present.
Jesus demonstrates a power beyond the reach of any mere mortal. Whatever illusions of control human beings might have, such illusions dissipate rapidly in the face of violent storms—typhoons, hurricanes, and tornados. The fact that no human being can command the sea is something of a commonplace in historical writing. Antiochus Epiphanes, the villain of the story of the Maccabees, is described as one who “in his superhuman presumption, thought he could command the waves of the sea.” (2 Mc 9:8) A more pious ruler, King Canute of England, supposedly had his throne set up by the seashore as the tide was coming in for the very purpose of demonstrating his powerlessness over the sea. Seated on his seaside throne, he ordered the tide not to invade his territory or to wet his garments. When the sea failed to obey his command, he said, “Let all earth’s inhabitants know that the power of kings is vain and frivolous, nor is any king worthy of the name except Him by whose command heaven, earth, and sea obey eternal laws.” Canute then placed his crown on the head of an image of Christ on the cross (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia anglorum, VI. 17).
The stilling of the storm proclaims Jesus’ tremendous power. The story signals that it will not be an equal fight when Jesus faces even a “legion” of demons in the following chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The story also reveals the need for faith. The disciples had asked Jesus, “Don’t you care if we drown?” He responded with a question of his own, “Don’t you have faith yet?” Precisely what sort of faith the disciples should have had is unfolded as Mark’s Gospel goes on to answer their question, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Jesus is a Lord to be feared
Jesus provoked fear in his disciples by displaying his power over the storm. Mark writes that the disciples “feared a great fear,” and this wording is stronger than that of the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke. Fear seems to be used in the normal sense and in the sense of awe. For the disciples to fear Jesus would be justified, since they had just accused him of not caring if they drowned and he had responded by questioning their faith. The disciples would have been right to fear Jesus’ judgment of them, just as we today ought to “fear and love God,” i.e. fear his judgment upon us as sinners and love him for his gracious acceptance of us in Christ.
Jesus’ calming of the storm also evoked the fear that is awe in the presence of divine power. Jesus displayed power over the chaotic sea ascribed in the Old Testament to God alone (Is 51:10, Jb 26:10-12, Ps 104:6-9).
Jesus is the Lord who saves
Joel Marcus (Mark 1-8, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1999) observes that Mark’s audience would most likely have seen parallels between Jesus and Jonah. Both slept through a storm and once awakened were able to save the crew—Jesus by stilling the storm, Jonah by sacrificing himself to the waves. Jesus would, of course, also ultimately sacrifice himself for the salvation of all people. On this point, Marcus says, “[T]here is perhaps a hint of [Jesus’] resurrection in the use of the verb egeirousin for the disciples’ rousing of him” (p. 337).
Marcus further suggests that by analogy the hearers of this text can place themselves in the story. According to his interpretation, the fact that Jesus and his disciples were moving to the gentile shore parallels the situation of Mark’s readers in their outreach to gentiles. Thus he believes the “other boats” of v. 36 gave Mark’s audience the opportunity to read themselves into the text and to see Jesus as coming powerfully to aid them against opposition.
Whether or not you accept Marcus’ interpretation, the saving power Jesus displays in this text certainly has application beyond that particular storm.