17. Mark 4:35-41: “Who, then, is This?”
After Jesus finishes his parabolic teaching he bids his disciples to cross to the other, the Gentile side of the “sea” (v.39). Jesus proposed journey across the divide between and Gentile places the New Exodus movement in mortal peril. Boundary crossing of whatever kind often does. But this is what God’s New Exodus is all about.
Mark insists on calling this body of fresh water a “sea” to evoke these Exodus memories (Myers, Say to This Mountain, 57). Crossing this sea, the way to the other side, this haunt of the evil and demonic, is fraught with danger. Can you think of another Old Testament story of a prophet caught up in maelstrom trying to cross the sea? If you said Jonah, you’d be right. The language about the storm has similarities. “Jonah has to sacrifice himself to save the ship (and a ship would become a standard symbol of the church). Jesus here simply commands the winds and sea to be still, but he will in time sacrifice himself for others and lie three days in the tomb just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of the great fish” (Placher, Mark:1532-1534). Both Exodus and Jonah allusions seem to be at work here.
This journey is so perilous and harrowing that the next time Jesus wants to take a boat across the “sea,” he has to “make” the disciples get in the boat with him (6:45).
The interaction between Jesus and the disciples in midst of this storm carries the meaning of the story. This is the first time the disciples address Jesus in Mark. Thus, it is of some special importance. And it is of not little significance that their first words to Jesus are about his mission and identity! “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” they plead as the storm threatens to do them in. On calm waters after Jesus has rebuked the storm, they ask, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” They know Jesus as “Teacher.” But his mastery of the elements reveals him to something more than that.
Jesus, on the other hand, asks about the disciples’ faith: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
And to the elements, he commands: “Peace! Be still!”
Let’s begin with the latter. “Peace” is the goal of all God’s work in reclaiming and restoring his wayward creation. Mark, thus, puts this story in the largest possible theological context. Jesus has already engaged many of the enemies of God’s peace, shalom, in Mark’s story. This is the struggle that all are engaged in – including us readers today!
We saw earlier the amazement of the people at Jesus’ authority in his teaching (1:22). Not like the scribes they were used to hearing! We are already on alert that something more is afoot with him than simply teaching.
And that something more this story reveals to be mastery of the wind and sea. Something that is predicated only of God in the Old Testament (see Job 26:11–12; Ps. 104:7, Isa. 51:9–10). And when we add the resonances of evil and the demonic from the sea, Jesus’ mastery of the elements takes on overtones of cosmic power at work in him.
Therefore, Jesus wonders why the disciples are afraid. The journey, the boundary-crossings to which he calls them are perilous, indeed. Make no mistake about that! But he is with them. And even asleep in the boat his presence is enough to secure them safety.
Yet, his presence asleep in the boat is not enough for them. Nor is it, often, for us either. We seldom cry out to him for help though. We usually just lie down next to him and try to sleep through the storms and crises that surround us.
Jesus knows us. That we are weak and frail creatures. Slow to process what we perceive and act on it. Before he and disciples embark on the next campaign in his attack on the powers and forces that keep humans shackled and thwart their humanity, he gives them another vivid and unmistakable opportunity to grow in their knowledge of him and practice faith in him.
“Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” Richard Hays notes: “Mark provocatively leaves the question unanswered. The words hang suspended over the story— leaving the reader to supply the answer” (Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Kindle Locations 728-729). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition). Just so!