First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 4

William Loader

Pentecost 4: 21 June Mark 4:35-41

With this passage the Lectionary returns to Mark until Pentecost 7. The stilling of the storm is a story full of rich imagery. Mark has reported Jesus’ parables of the sower (4:3-9, 13-20), the seed growing secretly (4:26-29), and the mustard seed (4:30-32). The focus is response to Jesus’ teaching and to the gospel. The disciples are privileged - they hear; they are ‘insiders’ (4:10-12). Enigmatically Jesus declares that parables are deliberately elusive (4:11-12; 4:33-34). Only those who are ready to hear and to see will understand. Just when we might expect further celebration of these disciples Mark springs a change. Self-congratulation by identification gives way to wonder and failure.

Mark places the remarkable story at this point, doubtless aware of its impact and rich symbolism. Jesus is another Jonah asleep amid a threatening storm (see Jonah 1). Whoever first retold the story was making connections. There are many. That narrator will also have known his hearers would find echoes of the psalms, both in their images of the overwhelming deep and in their poetry of Yahweh stilling its furies to calm (Ps 65:7; 106:9; 108:23-30). The threatening deep might be seen as source of the unknown, abode of demons, the abyss as Luke will call it. The playful allusions to Jonah are not to equate the two. Jonah is turfed overboard in repentance to save the ship. Jesus rises to command wind and wave, addressing them as he earlier does the demonic (see 1:25).

Mark is bringing the theme of the good news to an initial climax. Jesus had faced the demons in the desert (1:12-13). His public ministry commenced with exorcism (1:23-28). More followed in his healings (1:34; 3:11). Blasphemy was to fail to recognise the exorcism he brought by the Spirit to the world (3:28-30) and to declare him mad or possessed (3:21; 3:22). This story, like those which follow, paints the good news of the gospel in similar terms. The demonic is overcome. The demons are banished to the deep (5:1-20). Christ brings resurrection and new life (5:21-43).

Whatever history may have informed the story - some verisimilitude is unmistakable for those who have been surprised as I have by the sudden afternoon winds on the sea of Galilee - now it makes a statement about Jesus, the son of God. The disciples are rescued but fail to understand. They are left questioning. Who is this? Mark invites us to answer.

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.

Mark’s world seems remote, its demonology foreign, until we recognise that Mark is giving us a structure of thought which we can connect strikingly to our own times. Its pattern is to identify the powers that destroy and distort and endanger and then to see salvation as the overcoming, the liberation from such powers. This has both personal and social/political dimensions. It must have been very close to Jesus’ own understanding of the change of rule in the world’s affairs: the coming of God’s reign, the kingdom of God. Jesus was baptised and equipped with the Spirit in order to bring the baptism of the Spirit to the world (1:7-8). Mark connects the Spirit with acts of liberation, exorcism (3:29). The theme runs persistently through the opening chapters of the gospel. We find it wherever Jesus returns from having to deal with critics (as in 2:1-3:6) or from having to deal with people’s attitudes to his ministry (as in 3:20 - 4:30).

We miss all of this if we reduce the story to a wonder, which then leaves us wondering why we do not have such power to avert destructive hurricanes and tornadoes today. God knows how much we could do with such control. Some will have no philosophical difficulty in taking the story literally. Certainly Mark would have assumed a real event, but Mark’s composition indicates that it now serves a greater end and has become a symbolic statement of the gospel.

Symbols should not be ironed out into flat statements of belief. They invite playfulness and reflection. They inhabit dreams and visions. They spring in where words and definitions fail. So the story is rich in suggestion for worship, for meditation, for preaching. People know what it is like to be buffeted. People know what it is like to have no control. People know situations where only the divine can intervene. People still cry, ‘Lord, save us!’ People also know it is not as easy as waving a magic wand, playing king Canute or talking to the winds and the flowers. What is asserted here is hope and its context, struggle. Mark gives us a myth to live by which becomes our truth. The one who rebukes the furies will cry in despair on the cross. Mark is realistic. It does not change the structure or the analysis. It shows the way.

Epistle: Pentecost 4: 21 June  2 Corinthians 6:1-13