The Gospel according to St. Mark offers us two theological options that give this story pastoral power no matter our context. Details of the story's place in the Gospel narrative and the specific language of the text provide the foundation for both emphases. The first theological option is to show Jesus possessing the power to overcome evil and danger, coming on the heels of a collection of parables about God's reign or empire (4:1-34). Then, Mark moves into a series of stories in which Jesus himself mediates that power to overcome the threatening chaos of the sea (4:35-41), demons (5:1-20), illness (5:24b-34), and even death (5:21-24a, 35-43). As God delivered humankind from the threatening chaos symbolized by the sea (Psalm 65:7; 68:22; 89:9; 95:5; 104:7; 106:9; 107:23-29), so now does Jesus. Though this story is set early in Jesus' ministry, however, several details make it clear that this is a story about the risen Christ present in the daily life of the community of followers. This is the second theological option that this story evokes. The best manuscripts of Mark contain no stories of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter. Rather, the Gospel ends with the silence of the frightened women (16:8). This story, along with the account of the Transfiguration (9:2-8) and the second storm narrative (6:45-52), look back at moments of Jesus' earthly ministry through the woven fabric of the resurrection. Jesus, though present in the boat, is asleep--a common metaphor for death--and is awakened. Life and death are at stake in the storm, and Jesus holds the key to both.
At issue also are faith (4:40) and fear (4:41). Six times in Mark, the disciples are said to be seized by the "fear" that blends terror and awe. Two are in the stories of the storms at sea (4:41; 6:50). Two others accompany passion predictions (9:32; 10:32). The others are at the Transfiguration (9:6) and the empty tomb (16:8). All of these moments place us unequivocally in the presence of God. But what would Mark's church have heard in such stories, and what can they be saying to us? As best we can discern, Mark's church was living in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. If Mark's account of Jesus' life and ministry were to be "good news" for the church, it would have to proclaim that message in the midst of the storms through which they were living (and in which many were dying). It would have to shine a light of hope in the night time of the life of the church, and not only proclaim the coming "day" of Christ's longed-for return in power. This story affirms that still in that nighttime, when the long and perilous journey is in process, the cosmic authority of the crucified and risen Christ is with us. God is with us, and we are not alone. The message for us is the same. Even when the seas threaten to engulf us and human imperial posturing threatens our home and the heart of our identity, the Risen One is always in the boat with us. Christ's words, "Peace! Be still!" still promise to carry us safely through the night.
- How do you picture the disciples’ faces in Mark 4:39-41? Which would frighten you more—the storm raging or an unconscious Jesus?
- Why do you think God allowed a storm to come up in the first place?
- What do you think was Jesus’ tone of voice when he said, “Why are you afraid?”
- What was Jesus showing His disciples about Himself in all this?
- How do you react to Jesus when He seems to be asleep in your life? How do you reconcile this understanding with Psalm 121:3-4?
- What brings on most of the storms in your life and/or the lives of others?
- What is the worst personal “storm” you have faced? How did Jesus calm or removed the storm?