Recognizing the Faithful One: Thoughts on the Fourth Week of Pentecost

Note: Paul Ricoeur is one of my favorite philosophers and I had planned a much more full interaction between the text below and his thought, particularly his ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ and ‘hermeneutical arc’. This did not materialize as I had hoped. But because I need to get caught up with these (and some other things) I’m going with a seriously truncated version of what I had originally planned. Despite the lack of a more substantial engagement, hopefully those familiar with his thought can see the Ricoeurian undertones.

The Gospel Text for the Fourth Week of Pentecost, Mark 4:35-41 (CEB)

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He 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. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

A Note on Hermeneutical Horizons

I received some trenchant feedback via email concerning my previous lectionary reflection about my statement about the parable of Jesus,

they first and foremost tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God and the identity of Jesus before they tell us anything about us. Or we could say that whatever they tell us about us, they tell us about ourselves in relation to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus and the kingdom of God first, us second.”

To make a long email short, my critic seemed to have two main concerns: first that I was saying that the text says nothing about us and second, that I had hindered one’s ability to ‘immediately apply’ (their words) God’s word to our life. To this I simply repeat my contention that the parables say something about Jesus and his kingdom before they say anything about us. Again, its not they say nothing about us, but what they say about us is within the context the kingdom and liberating kingship of Jesus. I would also say here that it is, in actuality, within this kingdom context that we truly see ourselves as we are (for good or bad).

Second, I would question the immediacy of the text most readers of the Bible simply assume and the way so many are driven to ‘life application’ that is so often displayed. There is potential for misunderstanding here so let me try to be clear. I am not saying that we can’t ever understand the text, nor am I saying that Scripture has no bearing on our lives. What I am saying is that typical evangelical readings of the Bible seriously lack any sort of contemplative or hermeneutical patience in which we allow the Spirit to apply the Scriptural text to us and form us.

There are three main horizons, contexts, or ‘worlds’ involved in our reading of the Bible – the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world of the text. Most Christians it seems jump straight to our present context, or the world in front of the text. But without the patience to ponder and spend time in the other two worlds or horizons, our reading will be skewed and we will be severely temped to force ‘life applications’ out of the text ourselves rather than listening to the Spirit in the text. We need to slow down and learn hermeneutical patience.

Got Faith?

These same concerns are at play in the text at hand, where Jesus calms the storm. I can’t count how many sermons I’ve heard that treated this text as mainly saying something about the disciples and us – that we should have ‘faith’, meaning that we should not question and that doubt is bad, bad, bad. However, I am going to stick with my hermeneutical rule of thumb and say that we should read this parable firstly in the context of what it is saying about the identity of Jesus and the nature of his kingdom. I am also going to contend that by not reading the text this way we not only misunderstand faith (and doubt), but in the end we also are far too harsh on the disciples (and others that fail to display what we think of as true ‘faith’).

Even today, boats on the Sea of Galilee have cause to worry about high winds and waves swamping boats. So the disciple’s concern here was not misplaced. But this story is not simply about danger and rescue. Mark’s readers likely would have heard other and older references in the text. They may have thought of Jonah who was disobedient and thrown overboard during a great storm. Or perhaps they thought of the Exodus (a common theme in the gospels) when God made a way through the sea. But also they may have thought back to the creation stories where God brought order to the chaos and God’s world emerged from the waters. There is also the Psalms (65:7, 89:9, 93:3-4, 107:23-30) where the God who is Lord over all calms the raging seas.

The fact here is that Israelites have been a sea fearing people rather than a seafaring people. The sea and the waters represent evil and chaos that is the absence of creation or that threatens to destroy God’s creation. In Daniel 7, the sea is where monsters came from. What Jesus has been teaching in parables and word-pictures prior to this, we now have in more tangible terms. The power that created in the first place is now being displayed in the inaugurated kingdom of Jesus – in the liberating King himself. Its not a kingdom like everyone wanted or expected, but Jesus tends to deconstruct what we think kingdom is or should be. And there are some noticeable differences. Jesus is a not a disobedient Jonah, but is instead obedient. And Jesus does more than vanquish some monsters, he calms the sea itself (which terrifies the disciples). We find here, that in the midst of disobedient and faithless Israel who do not recognize Jesus for who he is; Jesus, himself, is the Faithful One. This is the stuff kingdom and new creation is made of (notice at the end of Revelation there is ‘no more sea’).

In fact, Jesus seems so calm, even while the forces of evil threaten, that he sleeps. His disciples are put off by this and question whether he cares or not. Jesus responds with ‘Be still! Silence! Shalom! Peace!’ and the storm calms. What follows here is Jesus calling their faith into question. Before we are too hard on the disciples we should stop to consider how faith is being used here. We should keep in mind first that up until this point the issue at hand has been the identity of Jesus, about having ‘eyes to see’ and ‘ears to hear’ – not something one figures out by adding up clues, but something that is revealed.

Second, this story points us straight to Mark chapter 8 and the great confession by Peter about who Jesus is. Faith here is not simply mental assent. I would suggest that in the context of Mark itself that ‘faith’ includes recognizing who Jesus is as the Messiah, the liberating King and the Faithful One (remember that Jesus had given the disciples some extra tutoring sessions just prior to this) and that faithfulness is never far away from faith (remember also that many in the crowds would fall away after this). Jesus is asking them in the midst of the gathering forces of evil and de-creation, “Don’t you recognize who I am yet … are you not yet ready for faithfulness to the kingdom?”

Calling Ourselves into Question

These are the questions that are posed to us as well. Here we should, we must, be willing to call ourselves into question – we must greet ourselves with a hermeneutic of suspicion. And we must especially do this when we have not experienced suffering. In fact, to follow Jesus is to follow in the way of a suffering Messiah. We don’t really know the answer to the question Jesus asks us here until we encounter suffering. The experience of suffering becomes our ‘critical moment’ or ‘dark night’, calling us into question whether we like it not – maturing us from a precritical naïveté to a matured second ‘knowing’ on the other side (or what Ricoeur refers to also as a second naïveté).

In this, doubt may actually play a constructive role as a necessary part of the process of deepening our faith. Doubt can actually serve as the condition of faith and not its opposite (this of course assumes that we are not thinking of ‘faith’ here as rational assent in Cartesian terms but Spirit revelation of who Jesus is and faithfulness; nor is our end or telos modern ‘certainty’ but biblical hope and assurance arising from the story of Jesus). The practice of ‘calling into question’ is the only way to be sure that our preconceptions and unquestioned theologies do not become idols.

As Walter Brueggemann says,

“Theology that is ‘pre-pain’ must be greeted with suspicion.” (Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living, 26)

We must point out that there is great hope here however as well. Mostly I have seen Jesus statement about the disciple’s faith, or lack thereof, interpreted as a stern rebuke. I don’t think this is necessary. Jesus here certainly is calling the disciples to take stock of their understanding and fittingness for the kingdom. But notice also, that despite the fact that the rhetorical answer to his question to them is ‘no’, Jesus does not send them away. This to me is BIG! Just like Jesus does not send the disciples away, neither does he send us away. We can have patience and we don’t have to have to understand it all right now. Jesus, the Faithful One, takes us as his followers – doubts and all.

Prayer for the Fourth Week of Pentecost

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving­kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.