Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary re-posted from year B, 2015.
The lectionary melts down a little this week. On one hand, it inexplicably avoids the wilderness feeding (6:35-44), such that we get neither of Mark’s two versions of this tradition in Year B. This is particularly unfortunate in light of the fact that just a few weeks ago the historic Church of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha by the Sea of Galilee (above) was set afire by young Israelis. Scrawled on a wall was red Hebrew graffiti warning that “idol worshippers” would be killed. Like the shooting at Charleston, SC that occurred the same day, this violation was not an isolated incident. As Mazin Qumsiyeh points out, many other churches and mosques have been destroyed since the founding of the Jewish state. Elaine and I visited the Tabgha church a few years ago, grateful for the modesty of this ancient sanctuary in a land of religious spectacle. We were taken with the spring that runs by the church and into the lake, and captured by the famous loaves and fishes mosaic on the floor underneath the altar, so iconic for our work in Sabbath Economics. This Sunday could well be devoted to the stories of the wilderness feeding and this awful arson.
On the other hand, the lectionary reading also dodges the “redundancy” in Mark’s narrative by omitting the second sea crossing in a storm. On 4. Pentecost I chose to focus my blog comments on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ rather than the first sea story, and promised I’d return to it this Sunday, so that will be my focus here.
It is admittedly a little puzzling that Mark, otherwise the sparest of the gospel writers, is so redundant in the second major section of his story, narrating two perilous crossings of the Sea of Galilee during storms (Mk 4:35-41; 6:45-53), not to mention two wilderness feedings (6:35-44; 8:1-10). But these “refrains” are fundamental to his narrative strategy, woven around his accounts of the discipleship community traversing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. To map this out would take more space than this blog allows, but you can read up on it in Say to This Mountain (Orbis, 1994), pp 55ff.
The sea crossing stories offer us the poignant and archetypal image of a little boat—an ancient and continuing symbol of the church—amidst a raging storm. We disciples must learn to navigate such storms, and desperately need to get our bearings, but it’s hard to read the sextant or the compass in the midst of swirling currents, fierce winds, and gathering darkness.
As noted, the first storm account was the Lectionary gospel reading for June 21st, prophetically, the Sunday after an exhilarating and excruciating week in which Pope Francis issued Laudate Si’, and during which two historic sanctuaries were violated by hatred: nine parishioners of Emanuel African American Episcopal church in Charleston murdered by a young white gunman at a Bible study, and the Church in Tabgha, Israel terrorized and burned by a group of young radical yeshiva students.
That story begins by Jesus inviting his Jewish disciples to embark on a voyage to “the other side,” the geography of their Gentile adversaries (Mk 4:35). During this crossing a storm blows up, and the boat begins to take on water (4:37)—a scene that would have taken place not far, we should note, from Tabgha! The disciples, among whom were fishermen experienced on the sea, realize they are going down. In a moment of high pathos, they scream at their dozing leader: “Master, do you not care if we perish?!” This scene is deeply empathetic concerning our anxious human condition.
Unlike Psalm 107:23-30, to which it alludes, this episode ends not with relief or triumph, but with Jesus and the disciples wondering about each other:
Jesus: “Do you not yet have faith?” (4:40).
Disciples: “Who is this that even the sea and wind obey him?” (4:41).
The disciples are more unnerved after Jesus silences the storm than they were in the midst of it! Is this due simply to their awe before a “nature miracle,” or might it have more to do with their dread of actually having to complete this crossing into foreign territory? We can answer this by seeing how this boat story (and its counterpart in 6:45-52) is drawing on archetypal symbols.
Mark consistently refers to the freshwater lake as a “Sea” in order to invoke primal narratives in the Hebrew tradition: Noah’s Ark; crossing the Red Sea; and Psalmic odes to storms. Above all, Mark draws on the tale of Jonah, the prophet who resisted the call to preach repentance to “outsiders.” Jonah fled from his mission because he was unconcerned with the fate of those suffering oppression under the imperial city-state of Ninevah (Jon 4:11). Thus Jonah, like the disciples here, was caught up in a “great storm” (Jon 1:2-4).
The wind and waves in Mark’s story, as cosmic forces of opposition (see Ps 104:7), symbolize everything that impedes Jesus’ attempted “boundary crossing.” The enmity between Jew and Gentile was seen in antiquity as the prototype of all human hostility, the separation between them considered part of the “natural order.” Mark’s harrowing Sea stories suggest that the task of social reconciliation was not only difficult, but virtually inconceivable. No wonder, then, that in Mark’s second boat episode Jesus must force the disciples to make the crossing (6:45)!
In the second voyage to the other side, the hapless disciples must sail by themselves (6:45). Again we find them upon a raging sea in the dead of night, straining pitiably against what must have felt like the roaring headwinds of Hell (6:47f). The Greek says they were “tortured at the oars” yet were losing ground. What a heartbreaking portrait of the struggle of discipleship; so often it seems we are losing ground against the winds of violence!
Jesus’ walk on the sea is a moment of revelation that the disciples miss, thinking he is a “ghost” (6:48f). When they realize their mistake, they are profoundly “agitated,” a word suggesting that the storm now rages inside them as well. Here at last comes Jesus’ response to their frightened question about his identity that concluded the first boat trip (4:41). He is the “I AM” (6:50), an extraordinary invocation of the name of the Exodus God (see Ex 3:4). But the disciples are “beside themselves” (6:51), and the crossing is unsuccessful (6:53), because they have contracted Pharaoh’s disease: hard-heartedness.
Recent events exhume the hard questions implicit in this Markan tradition. Are our heart hardened too? What does it mean for us to encounter God not in the safe harbors of insular church, but amidst the storms of history—not least of climate crisis and continuing disparity and hatred? How will we stand with Jesus against these storms? And will we exhibit the courage to cross over to “the other side” to stand with victims of poverty, racist violence and war without end?