The Politics of Chaos—Mark 4:35-41 (Mark Davis)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

The storm at sea is one of the most potent experiences and images of chaos. Jesus’ miraculous calming of the storm is an image, not merely of his power with regard to nature, but also of his mastery over the chaotic political elements that threaten us.

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

For sea-faring folk in ancient times, from the impressive port city of Caesarea Maritima, built on the Mediterranean coast by Herod the Great, to the small fishing villages along the inland seas, great bodies of water represented life and livelihood as well as ever-present danger. Everybody knew somebody who set out to sail one day but never returned. Everybody knew the deadly potential of a sudden wind or a heavy storm. And everybody lived with the risks of such dangers because the waters were the resources for work, food, portage, import, and export. Ancient and modern, fresh and salt, inland and coastal, large bodies and small, the waters are ambiguous as gift and nemesis.

It is no wonder that one of the most vivid images of chaos in ancient literature is a storm at sea. The imagery is compelling because in a sea storm, everything is in flux. The ground beneath one’s feet is moving, the mast to which one might cling is moving, the stern in which one might hide is moving, and in the fury of the winds and waves the boat creaks and cracks, giving voice to the real possibility that it may splinter at any point. The sail—normally the mechanism by which one uses the wind for energy and direction—has long been taken in because it is useless now and would be ruined for later if it were left unfurled. Even an outcropping rock, which may represent a mooring site in calmer seas, now is a danger—hard to see and likely to be the anvil to the waves’ hammer with the unfortunate boat caught between blows. The mythology of the great sea monsters—rooted, no doubt, in sightings of large sea creatures along the way—gained its greatest compelling power by what one did not see. It supplied an explanation for the horrific yet unknown events by which ships that sailed off peopled, provisioned and whole, were returned in piecemeal planks with no survivors.

This is chaos. Everything is caught up in it, nothing is secure, and those tools or practices that usually allow us to exploit the elements to our advantage are now rendered useless or worse. People in chaos are not in control. They are along for the ride, hanging on for dear life, hoping against hope to keep it together until the storm is passed. Except Jesus. Jesus is asleep in the hold while his shipmates are struggling for their lives. No wonder the disciples have such a tone of frustration along with the panic in their voices when they awaken Jesus with the accusatory words, “Teacher, do you not care that we perish?” Even after the storm ceases, they use a salty epithet to describe Jesus, which could courageously be translated, “Who the hell is this that even the wind and the sea listen to him?”

One could read this story as a sheer miracle story, where Jesus overcomes the human struggle with nature, a consequences of sin in Genesis 3. But, for those of us who have difficulty ascribing agency to wind and waves, a political reading of the story seems more promising. For Mark’s gospel, written at a time when the destruction of the temple was at hand, the chaos of this story is Rome’s seemingly irresistible power. There was no safe footing, no place to hold, no place to hide, because everything was caught up in Rome’s driving wind and angry waves. Even the temple—the house of prayer, the holy place where God’s presence was most palpable, the last foothold of refuge in times of distress—was imperiled by the storm. In that storm, God’s people are panicking, hanging on for dear life. Except Jesus. Jesus sleeps and when awakened Jesus is able to command even the wind and waves, calming Rome’s fury. There will be wind again; there will be waves again. But, in this moment, Jesus’ word is more powerful than Rome’s storm.

For people in chaos, the political reading of this story may be no less fanciful than the miraculous reading. In diasporic, war-torn, or terrorized communities, the hope of this story is that the Reign of God extends over even the most daunting expression of chaos. It presses our sensibilities and expectations, but it offers the hope that even the chaos can be brought to order.

4 thoughts on “The Politics of Chaos—Mark 4:35-41 (Mark Davis)

  1. I’m reading this commentary on June 19, 2018 after days of news about children being taken from their families at the US border. There is chaos out there and knowing that Jesus still moves among it, fully trusting God, is for me a way of anchoring myself. Thank you for this, truly.

  2. Dear Mark, Thank you for this. As I approached this text, the first thing that jumped out at me, as the NRSV says, “they left the crowd behind.” Your translation linking “dismissing” and “forgiving” confirmed for me that we have to disconnect first in order to accept the invitation to go to the other side. Hard to define, harder to do.
    The storm feels like the destination here, at least a temporary one. It’s the point of the sailing excursion, because it is the place of the work, sailing into the power-driven chaos that we know too well right now. The clue to me that it is worldly (political) chaos is that the word for wind is not the spirit word – thank you for that!
    I am not at all comfortable being glib about Jesus’ presence as we sail into the chaos, as if he were the magic feather. Too many people are being hurt by that chaos right now and panic seems nigh on to reasonable. We cannot assume that Jesus is going to lift his head off the pillow (love the poop option!) and fix it all but we certainly know that chaos will reign unless (until?) we are willing to be peace in the very center of it.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Thank you for your kind note. Yes, I like where you’re going with the disassociation that is required to enter the chaotic journey. And I like that the storm itself might be the destination, at least temporarily, as opposed to a challenge that arises along the way. I’d love to hear the sermon that comes from your reflections this week. Blessings on your ministry.

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