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.
Mark does something strange with his concentrated little section of parables. Rather than focusing on the primary content of Jesus’ teaching, Mark presents an integrated set of parables that seem self-conscious. That is, they are teachings about the dynamic of Jesus’ teaching. The first parable--the parable of the sower--is in fact the parable about parables. The following shorter parables support and develop the main theme of this meta-parable. So it is that Jesus paradoxically uses parables to teach about parables. This may seem a little confusing, but the section, once we grasp its underlying point, is where the challenge to the reader really begins.
The episode involving the paralytic set Jesus on a path of conflict with the religious authorities, though the situation is more like smoldering embers that will burst into flame later. For now, the guardians of tradition are perplexed, irritated, and perhaps wounded at Jesus’ disrespect for their position. In the following stories, Jesus will consciously stick his finger in that wound, unafraid to provoke a reaction in exchange for gains in proclamation of his kingdom way. These leaders become a foil for his teaching, and in the heat of the conflict Jesus’ rhetorical flourishes are all the more stunning.
Jesus announced the kingdom in word and deed. Mark’s first story about Jesus’ ministry holds these two together perfectly. Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. An essential aspect of his identity is teacher. Mark tells us, however, that he was not just a garden-variety instructor. The authority with which he taught was astounding. From this point on, authority will be a key word for Mark. As will be evident when we come to some of Jesus’ particular teachings, he was a man with extraordinary insight into the will of God revealed in Scripture.
Mark opens with a statement of identity. This is the good news concerning Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. These may be titles we are over-familiar with, names that we toss about without a real sense of their meaning. They may be titles we think we have rightly understood when in fact our assumptions are misguiding us. Or they may be al- together new to us. In any case, if we are capable of reading Mark’s first sentence without a sense of shock, of joy, and even of anxiety, we must read them again in context. For the opening salvo from Mark asserts that Jesus’ Messiahship is a message of unequivocally good, reality-altering news. The king has come!
My wife, who provides for me the sensitivity to academic tediousness that I lost somewhere along the way, said that this introduction is like lots of others: “You just have to get through it.” I take that gentle criticism seriously, though I have found no other way to talk about these introductory issues. To those who will simply skip this part: I understand. To those who will, after graciously reading it, wonder whether this is a sign of things to come: I assure you it is not. The study itself will be totally geared for the uninitiated. Think of it this way: The introduction is for you, the evangelist. It is not, however, something I would introduce into the study itself. The body of the study, while also intended to be preparation material for you (behind the scenes in a sense), is written in such a way as to indicate how to present Mark.
During one of our less gratifying fund-raising experiences, the committee reviewing the team lined us up and asked each member how many people we had baptized. I looked self-consciously down at my belt to find not even a hint of a notch. The implication was clear: “You expect us to send you to evangelize in a foreign land when you don’t even do it right here?” It was a question already bouncing around in my own heart, though, causing no little indigestion. I had heard often enough that aspiring missionaries shouldn’t expect the mission field to be the cure for a lifestyle devoid of evangelization.
It was worrisome, to say the least.