Mark as Gospel: Faith and Fear (4:35-6:6)

Without overdramatizing the scene, it is probable that the story of the storm at sea represents more than just a life-threatening situation. The sea is well-known as a symbol of primordial chaos in the Ancient Hebrew worldview, and that chaos is precisely what God tamed and ordered in his good creation. Beyond the power to command demons and heal diseases--claims with clear parallels in the religious milieu of Jesus’ day--we have here a much more ambitious Christian claim. Jesus can command creation, even at its unruliest, and demand obedience. He wields the power of the Creator himself. Again, we must do our best to empathize with the disciples, who are filled with awe at this sort of power. It is breathtaking. And it brings them to ask, directly now, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?!” Who is this? Mark will have us answer eventually.

Recognition is the call, and Jesus is now ready for his followers to get it. We have come to the point in the story where he feels that what they have seen and heard should be sufficient. “Have you still no faith?” he asks. It is important not to separate the idea of faith from his identity. This is not an abstract notion of faith or belief. It is a simple question of trust on the basis of who he has shown himself to be. There is no reason to fear the storm if the man in the boat with them is who his actions and words suggest. Once they answer their own question, there is no more fear. More poetically, even when the entire world turns to chaos and creation itself seems undone--in that moment when the question of how God is going to set things right again before we are destroyed is sharpest--the recognition that Jesus is in fact the Messiah of God, the promised answer to creation’s state, causes trust. The problem, of course, is that these closest followers have yet to recognize him.

Finishing the boat ride, Jesus enters into Gentile territory for the first time in the story. What will happen here is not mere redundancy; it’s not just another demon possession story. Rather, it is the narrative representation of utter, extreme, overwhelming impurity, into which Jesus strolls without batting an eye.

The scene is, in the first place, Gentile--by definition, impure. Immediately comes a man with two characteristics to compound his impurity: he has an unclean spirit, and he lives among the tombs (Lev. 21:1-4; 11). Moreover, he cuts himself, brining to mind another Levitical prohibition (Lev. 19:28; 21:5).

But it gets worse. He has not just one unclean spirit but thousands of them. And finally, his graveyard abode is found amidst a swineherd (Lev. 11:7). For someone attuned to issues of impurity, the scenario is bordering on the absurd. 

The Messiah has shown himself to be capable, as the Holy One, of overcoming the impurity of demons and leprosy. But rooted in Israel’s very identity as God’s priestly kingdom and holy (pure) nation (Ex. 19:3-6) is the question of her relationship to the rest of the nations--to the Gentiles--and, therefore, the relationship of the priestly kingdom’s king to them as well. What has the Holy One to do with the unholy? Does his messiahship matter for them? In other words, with a short boat trip (during which the Creator shows his hand) Mark brings us to begin pondering the implications of this Jewish Christ for the rest of the creation. What happens when he walks into our filthy midst? The conclusion is simple: there is no conceivable degree of impurity that is too much for him. An army of demons grovels and runs squealing. His holiness overwhelms the entire horizon, making every contrary factor nothing more than irrelevant. There is hope for the whole creation, profoundly corrupted as it is, because Jesus is the Son of the Most High God--God of gods, ruler of the whole earth. Jesus is Messiah, but this does not, it seems, mean that he is just the king of the Jews. Suddenly (as Mark would have it, no doubt), the good news of the kingdom has taken on unexpected proportions in comparison with the small ambition of revolution and freedom from Rome. Or, as Isaiah put it: 

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
— Isaiah 49:6

It is only a glimmer of what is to come, but the Gentile question has been raised. Whereas Israel had been in a terrible struggle to avoid impurity, Jesus casts a vision of the new reality wherein impurity is obliterated, opening a way into the rest of the world for those who would follow after Jesus in holiness. 

There is something else important going on in this story as well, and it is not flattering for the twelve. Whereas they should have already got it but instead flounder in fear, this Gentile’s simple response to Jesus is perfect. “He begged [Jesus] that he might be with him.” This is a follower’s true desire. When Jesus, instead of granting his request, commands that he go and tell, the man obeys without complaint or question. And of course, the apostleship of the twelve was defined in 3:14 as a calling “to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message.” The Gerasene ex-demoniac is, according to Mark, the first sent one. The contrast with the twelve is not to be overlooked. 

At present, the local people are not ready for Jesus. They too are afraid and prefer him to be on his way. In the mean time, the healed man will proclaim a simple message--perhaps the essence of the good news in terms that the non-Jewish world more easily understands (for what is the Jewish king to them?). “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Without a thought for this man’s spiritual and theological formation, without a single word on ministry equipping or leadership training, he sends him into Ten Cities to tell how God saves. It is a breathtaking, maybe disconcerting model, but whatever else we say about it, we should at least come to grips with its affirmation of simple, unassuming testimony. We are all empowered by this man’s vocation to tell the story of God’s mercy. It is not complicated. We just need to recognize that to tell what Jesus has done is to tell what the Lord has done. The ex-demoniac got it. 

Next we have a Markan sandwich, so we have to be on the lookout for the intended dramatic effect. The episode begins with the sickness of a twelve-year-old girl, but it is interwoven with the story of the woman afflicted for the same twelve years. The two are deeply related on a thematic level, dealing with a far-reaching idea of life and salvation. In other words, again, this is not just a repetition of “Jesus can heal;” it takes us further into the message of the kingdom. 

The father pleads for his daughter’s life. His words are, “so that she might be saved and live.” Death is immanent. It is a moving scene, and his urgency suggests that Jesus has hit dry land at the very last moment. En route to the house, though, a delay occurs. The woman sneaks up to touch Jesus unnoticed, desperately hopeful that this last resort will heal her. Her need for discretion is strong, because her disease has many dimensions. Not only is she physically unwell and economically undone, she is also ritually unclean (because it is a feminine infirmity; Lev. 15:25-30) and therefore socially unacceptable. Mingling with the crowd is bad enough; bestowing her uncleanness on her would-be healer is far worse. This is the “whole truth” she confesses in “fear and trembling” to Jesus. In this woman, fear and faith coexist. Yet, in keeping with the promise elsewhere that faith “as small as a mustard seed” is sufficient, Jesus states, “your faith has saved you; go in peace.” If ever there was an appropriate pronouncement of “peace,” echoing the Hebrew idea of shalom or total wellbeing, it is at this healing. Moreover, she was unable to bear children, giving the meaning of life here yet another overtone. 

The interruption proves costly. The child, herself nearly childbearing age, dies during the delay. There is no daughter. There will be no granddaughter. What is really at stake here, where the kingdom has not yet come to fulfillment? Life and death, and ultimately nothing less. It was fear of death that overshadowed the disciples’ faith during the storm, and it is death that stares this loving father in the face. It is horrifying, and we must never read over it cloaked in the callousness toward death with which we often insulate ourselves. Only when we stare back at death do Jesus’ words take on their full weight: “Do not fear; just believe.” Thus, we come to the final dimension of the kingdom proclamation. Certainly there is more to this story, things that cannot be left out by any stretch, but here is the signpost for the culminating revelation: Jesus raises the dead; the Messiah conquers the final enemy. For, quite simply, he raises her. She lives. 

On the heels of these stories about faith and salvation follows the anticlimactic crash into reality. Jesus returns home, and his family and childhood neighbors exemplify another barrier to faith for many: they think they already know who he is. For friends and family, the answer is easy--it’s just Jesus. We know him. We’ve seen him in diapers, seen him pimple-faced and gangly, seen him sweating at his carpentry. This is one of Mary’s boys. This is how it is for every prophet, as Jesus’ proverb comically hints. For others, the answer will be different, but the barrier will be the same. We come to Mark’s story with preconceptions. If we manage to hear his wisdom and witness his deeds of power but shrug nonetheless, they are likely getting the best of us. Who is Jesus? Consider what influences your answer in addition to Mark’s testimony.