Why are you terrified? Jesus asks.
Last week we encountered Jesus’ teaching style in the Synoptic Gospels; he often uses storytelling and conversation to enlighten and inspire faith and action. In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers a visual demonstration, giving the apostles a physical experience as a way to increase their understanding.
The wind ceased and there was great calm. (Mk 4:39)
What can you do to increase your faith?
What do you do when you are uncertain?
How do you respond to signs of God’s presence in your life?
Jesus and the apostles leave the crowds and take a boat across the Sea of Galilee. While Jesus sleeps, a tumultuous windstorm develops, compromising the boat and endangering the group’s survival. Concerned for their safety, the apostles wake Jesus and question why he sleeps, asking, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Rather than answer them directly, Jesus demonstrates his care by manifesting power to calm the wind and sea.
The story could end there, but the lesson is not over. Jesus criticizes the apostles with questions of his own: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” Jesus’ questions challenge the apostles in their limited understanding and invite them to a more advanced way of thinking. Stunned, in awe and not fully understanding Jesus’ power, they again have no answers, only questions about who Jesus is.
This short narrative is packed with Old Testament allusions. In Jonah, for instance, the prophet falls asleep on a boat that is out to sea in a great storm. Similar to the apostles, Jonah’s companions question how he is able to sleep through the storm. Likewise, the exchange between Jesus and the apostles echoes today’s responsorial psalm: “In their distress they cried to the Lord, who brought them out of their peril; He hushed the storm to silence, the waves of the sea were stilled” (Ps 107:28). Psalm 107 is a prayer about difficult experiences in life—being lost in the desert, imprisonment, sickness, sinfulness and facing a storm while on a ship—and the psalmist offers thanksgiving for divine power and deliverance.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ calming the storm manifests divine power on earth. Divine control over the waters is prominent in the creation narrative, with God ordering and separating the waters (Gn 1:2), and in the flood story, in which divine power creates and then calms the flood (Gn 7:6-8:5). Jesus’ actions towards the storm also share parallels with his first healing story in Mark. When Jesus encountered a man with an unclean spirit, he rebuked the spirit and told it to be silent and leave (Mk 1:25), just as he rebukes the wind and storm.
Experiencing divine power in their lives, the apostles are understandably in awe but also uncertain of what this means. Like a good teacher, Jesus knows where he wants his followers to arrive. Yet he does not answer their questions explicitly, but instead gives them information and more questions that will help them continue to formulate their own understanding.
At this point in Mark, Jesus has just begun his teaching ministry. He has offered a mix of healings, conversations and parables for the apostles to witness; and his calming of the storm allows them to experience his power in a tangible, meaningful way. This story reminds us of God’s power, and it can inspire us to be attentive to God’s presence in our lives, especially during the most difficult moments.