Preaching with The Storytellers Bible: June 24, 2018

June 19th, 2018

The following is a free excerpt from The CEB Storytellers Bible, a resource which helps readers see the big themes and important truths of the Bible while also guiding them in how to tell these stories in contemporary language. Over the course of four weeks, Ministry Matters will feature excerpts from the Storytellers Bible to match the Sunday lectionary. Read the final excerpt below.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4:35–5:20 (Lectionary Gospel reading is 4:35-41)

4:35–5:20 The Stilling of the Storm
Jesus demonstrates his authority over nature and the demonic.

The original New Testament texts were not divided into chapters and verses. Although the practice of dividing NT books into chapters dates back to at least the fourth century (see Codex Vaticanus, an important manuscript from the fourth century), dividing chapters into verses is usually associated with Stephanus’s fourth edition of the New Testament, which was published in 1551.

Unfortunately, the somewhat arbitrary divisions can lead to misunderstanding because the rhetorical shape of the text is changed. This is the case with Mark 4:35–5:20. The impact of the stilling of the storm (4:35-41) can only be fully appreciated when read in light of the story of the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20). The intrusive chapter division that separates the two stories in modern versions discourages such a reading.

The story begins at the end of the day. According to Mark, Jesus has finished a full day of teaching (see 4:1-34). He suggests to his disciples that they cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (4:35), presumably for some rest and relaxation. The disciples spring into action: “They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along” (4:36). Two details of this report, peculiar to Mark’s Gospel, demand our attention. Beginning at the end, the narrator notes, almost in passing, that there were other boats, a detail suggesting a sizable party. This point becomes interesting in the second of our two stories, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, and we shall return to it later. The other peculiarity is Mark’s notice that the disciples took Jesus with them “just as he was.” What does this phrase mean? It could simply refer to the fact that they left immediately, and Jesus remained in the boat from which he had been teaching (see 4:1). But the reference also suggests a kind of familiarity with Jesus on the part of the disciples. They took him “just as he was,” because they knew him “just as he was.” This smugness of false familiarity is about to be blown away by the storm that approaches!

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The authorial audience would have been familiar with the stories of sudden storms on the Sea of Galilee. The storm in Mark 4 is no small event. It is a violent squall, and the boat immediately begins to fill with water. The disciples, who were seasoned fishermen, are filled with fear and amazed to find Jesus asleep in the stem. They mistake his slumber for indifference: “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?’’ (4:38). This is the first of four unanswered questions in this story (see also 4:40, 41), and each arrests the audience’s attention. The fact that the first question is left unanswered increases the tension in the story just prior to its climax. Like the disciples, the audience is eager to learn why Jesus is sleeping during such a crisis. They wait, on the edge of their seats, for Jesus’s response, but he never answers the question. In this case, Old Testament echoes suggest a different interpretation of Jesus’s sleeping than the one given by the disciples. Sleep in the Old Testament is a symbol of divine sovereignty, as may be seen in Isaiah 51:9-10.

Before addressing the disciples, Jesus “got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, ‘Silence! Be still!’ The wind settled down and there was a great calm” (4:39). The language of Jesus “giving orders to” the wind and “silencing” the sea is reminiscent of an exorcism story (see esp. 1:25) and highlights the nature of the miracle. Jesus is not simply manipulating the elements into a more favorable weather pattern; he is engaging demonic powers and demonstrating his authority over them. Here the narrator picks up on a common theme in antiquity, especially in Jewish literature: that the sea is to be equated with chaos and evil. From the beginning, when the spirit of God hovered over the unformed and unfilled waters (Gen 1:2), “creation” was understood as bringing order to chaos. The passage from Isaiah cited above alludes to this reality, as do other Old Testament texts, such as Psalms 74:12-14 and 89:8-10.

Apocalyptic texts, both Jewish and Christian, speak of a future world in which the watery chaos has been finally defeated, variously depicted by the monsters of the sea being devoured at the messianic banquet (2 Bar 29:4; see also 2 Esdr 6:49-52) or by a simple assertion that “the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). So Jesus’s calming of the sea has both christological and eschatological implications. Jesus has authority over the watery chaos, an authority typically associated with God himself, and his calming of the sea is a foreshadowing of the world to come.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and asks, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (4:40). The second and third unanswered questions in this story put the disciples in a bad light. Even though they have heard his teaching, they still do not grasp the significance of his miracles. They lack faith in who Jesus is, a point confirmed by their closing question. Still filled with fear, they say to one another, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” (4:41). Those who were so sure that they were taking the familiar Jesus with them, “just as he was,” are now revealed to be clueless regarding the true identity of Jesus. He is sovereign over wind and sea; he is Lord over evil and chaos.

As noted above, the story does not end here. The theme of authority continues as Jesus completes his journey and lands in the region of the Gerasenes (5:1). The first half of the story of the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-13) is closely linked with the story of the stilling of the storm. The journey across the Sea of Galilee had begun with several boats full of disciples. The story then focuses on just one boat, the one carrying Jesus. Finally, the narrator notes that when they reach the other shore, only Jesus disembarks. What began as a journey of Jesus with a large number of followers has been reduced to Jesus alone. The narrator makes no further mention of the other boats or the disciples, but the audience might rightly hear this story with those disciples still present in the background. The temptation to fill this gap is great. Did the disciples stay in the boat because they realized where they were and were fearful of facing the dreaded demoniac? Had they discussed the legend of the demoniac during the rest of the trip? Did they feel safer there in the water, the place of chaos, than they did on solid ground with Jesus? We do not know, but it may be helpful to remember that there is an implied audience to this scene, the disciples in the boat, whose reactions to the event remain powerfully unstated. We shall return to those disciples in a moment.

Meanwhile Jesus steps out on the shore. The narrator digresses to give a detailed description of the demoniac’s condition. He is physically violent and destructive, socially alienated, and ritually unclean (living as he is among the tombs). After he confronts Jesus, the audience learns an even more startling fact. His name is Legion because the demons within him are countless! There is an ironic reversal of the One and the Many. “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (5:7), began a journey with many followers, the destination of which was an encounter with a man possessed by an unclean spirit. But at the dramatic climax of the encounter, the “many” who were ostensibly on the side of the good have been reduced to one, Jesus, and the one representative of evil, the demoniac, turns out to be a man with “many” demons.

The demons bargain with Jesus to be allowed to enter a herd of swine feeding on an adjacent hillside. This aspect of the story would have been humorous to an authorial audience who was either Jewish or familiar with Jewish dietary law (a familiarity which early Gentile Christians presumably possessed). The unclean swine were an appropriate refuge for the unclean spirits. Jesus grants their request, and immediately “the herd of about two thousand pigs rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned” (5:13).

The authorial audience knows what the unclean spirits do not: Jesus is Lord even of the sea, the place of chaos and evil. The unclean spirits had hoped to escape the authority of Jesus by entering unclean swine and returning to the place of primordial chaos and evil. But, according to Mark, there is nowhere that they can go that lies outside the divine jurisdiction of Jesus. They are the victims of their own ingenuity, and once again the narrator demonstrates the authority of Jesus over the demonic.

The story of the stilling of the storm easily lends itself to a kind of allegorical reading. The ship or boat is one of the earliest symbols of the Christian church, and the storm a handy metaphor to describe personal or communal calamity. Thus, the ship tossed to and fro by a violent storm is a readily recognizable image of the ecclesia pressa, the oppressed church. Indeed, Matthew seems to have pushed the story in this direction with several subtle changes in his account. The story follows a passage about discipleship (Matt 8:18-22) and begins by noting that “when Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him” (8:23). The disciples, fearful of the storm, address Jesus: “Lord, rescue us! We’re going to drown!” (8:25). The theological connotations of “rescue” (or “save”) and “Lord” are obvious. Likewise, the response of Jesus to the disciples is slightly different, and, unlike Mark, the rebuke occurs before the stilling of the storm: “Why are you afraid, you people of weak faith?” (8:26). Jesus’s disciples, fearful of the storm raging outside their boat, petition the Lord to save them. Jesus, in turn, rebukes them for having so little faith. How easily Matthew’s community could appropriate this story to their own context, whether of persecution of the church by outside forces or more personal crises of faith. In either case, Jesus has the power and authority to still the storm, rescue the disciples, and bring the boat safely to its destination.

These two seemingly unrelated stories, the stilling of the storm and the healing of the Gerasene demoniac, underscore the same reality (see also Ps 65:7: “You calm the roaring seas; calm the roaring waves, calm the noise of the nations”). Jesus has ultimate authority over evil, whether that evil manifests itself in nature, in the life of an individual, or in institutional opposition to the church. By the end of these stories, the audience is hopefully much better prepared to answer the pressing question, “What sort of man is this?” 

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