This is the eighteenth installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 4, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the seventeenth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
46 After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." 51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. 53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. (NRSV)
Scene 4 reveals a “break” in the action – time alone for Jesus, away from even his chosen Twelve; time he had been hungering for before but had given up for the crowds in need. We find out, in fact, that Jesus alone, after sending the crowds away, remained on land, while the Apostles were sent on to the Sea. Whether Mark intends us to see the upcoming struggle as indicative of the chaos of the Sea as opposed to the solidity of Land, or simply an historical detail, the reality is that Jesus traverses the chaos with ease. Indeed, he has arrived at the destination earlier than the apostles it would seem, even though they had been sent out ahead of him; Mark gives us no detail as to his travels.
Instead, Jesus is simply there, present to them, watching them “straining at the oars against an adverse wind” (6:48). As a result, he begins to bind Sea and Land together, “walking on the sea” (6:48). Yet, Mark adds one of the most intriguing details in the whole Gospel thus far, telling us that Jesus was not going to help the apostles but that he actually “ intended to pass them by” (6:48). But what would be the purpose of “passing them by”? To let them know they could act of their own accord? To give them hope by his mere presence? To reveal, perhaps, more fully who he was? Whatever the intent in passing them by, the result was abject fear: “when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified” (6:49-50). They do not recognize Jesus on the water, transcending the bounds of our materiality, our human being; they see a ghost, a spirit. Yet it is precisely here where I believe Mark is pushing his readers not to see the apostles as dull, stupid, dumb or clueless, as they are often presented in modern scholarly commentaries, but pushing his readers to place themselves in the drama, to take the place and role of the apostles. What would you do on a choppy sea if you saw a figure walking towards you? It is not that they have no faith in Jesus, it is that they are still working out who Jesus is, what it means to have faith in him, and whether there are any limits to his deeds. Apart from that, it seems they simply do not recognize it is Jesus. It is as if he is everywhere, anytime, in any situation, but how can that be? And why should they suspect the man who fed the thousands, however he did that, to be out on the sea in the middle of a storm. It is not the apostles Mark is putting on trial, dramatically, it is us, the readers. What do we think? How would we react? Mark is asking us to follow Jesus as one of the disciples, revealing to us new information as the apostles themselves receive it.
Jesus’ intent – even if he was just passing by – was not to terrify them, so he says immediately, "’Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded” (6:50-51). There is no earthly reason for them not to be astounded, afraid, or confused. Yet, once again, Mark has added a riddle for us the readers, or viewers, a note to take, a clue to store away. Are the apostles astounded because Jesus can walk on water? Calm the sea? Travel large distances without any clear means of transportation. No, Mark confounds us the readers with this explanation of the source of their astonishment: “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52).
They are astounded because of the loaves? Walking on water is not sufficient for their fear and astonishment? Mark is indeed laying a trail of bread crumbs for us which will only become clear, I will argue, when we come to the end of the second feeding miracle, although even then, it will remain opaque until we put each of the pieces of bread together. At this point I think it is fair to say, though, that the first feeding miracle was intended to reveal something about Jesus which the apostles simply have not grasped or understood fully. It is not that they have no faith – they do follow – it is that fear (not doubt) clouds faith. But what sort of faith ought they to have in Jesus?
The rest of Scene 4 is a sort of gentle denouement, allowing us to continue to ponder the imponderables Mark has laid out before us prior to continuing with them in chapters 7 and 8. The end of the scene is a continuation of the pattern of Jesus’ ministry: wherever they go, people come to see Jesus; when the crowds gather, he heals them. This is not an attempt to minimize this aspect of Jesus’ ministry by any means, but Mark gives us a précis similar to what we have seen in numerous other passages. We know that Jesus heals, but he has been pushing his apostles, and we the readers to see more, to go deeper, to follow Jesus to an unrecognizable depth and place. But where is it, how far away is it, and how will he get there? He can travel anyway he chooses, but how will Jesus travel to the end of his fulfillment of his ministry? Fear for the disciples’ mixes with faith, but wonder and confusion vie for attention.
John W. Martens
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