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Monday, March 31, 2014

I Was Too Critical and Not Critical Enough – Jesus Walking on the Water


Maybe I was too critical (and not critical enough) when I asked the question back in 2012 – Why was Jesus going to walk right past the disciples “in the boat, rowing frantically against strong storm winds… in serious danger of being shipwrecked or drowning and he’s just going to walk right on by them?  I mean, what the heck, Jesus? Did he just not see them?  Or perhaps he didn’t care?”

I wonder now if I was, in one regard, not critical enough in my reading and questioning of this text (Mark 6: 30 – 56) because I was rather careless.  Mark does not say that there was a storm.  Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples were “straining at the oars, because the wind was against them (6:48).”  There is no sense of storm.  There is no sense of danger.  When the disciples cry out in terror it’s not because of “the storm” (because there wasn’t one) but because they saw Jesus walking on the water and thought he was a ghost (6: 49).

Matthew also tells the story – but there’s no storm in his version either, only that the disciples boat was “buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it (Matthew 14: 24).”  Again there is no sense of life and death peril.   Luke doesn’t tell the story, but John does – and, like Mark and Matthew before him – there is no storm.  John says that “A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough (John 6:18).”

So I wasn’t critical enough in my reading. I was sloppy.  In my mind I conflated the story of Jesus walking on the water with the story of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4: 35 – 41 / Luke 8: 22 – 25).  It was a rookie mistake that I shouldn’t have made. 

And I also ask myself if I was too critical – in the sense of unfair.  My initial impulse was to see Jesus’ actions as a bit calloused. As a bit cruel –walking right on by the disciples as they floundered in the storm… Again, sloppy reading lead to bad interpretation.

I eventually made some sense of it – found understanding in Jesus wanting to test his disciples, to see how far they’d progressed in their faith.  And, apparently, I’m not alone in finding that to be a helpful way to understand Mark 6. 48 and the story as a whole; it is listed by John P Meier in his summary of five various ways the story is explained. “Others interpret the phrase [“he was about to pass by them”] to mean that Jesus wanted to test the disciples’ faith… (Meier, 916)”[i]

Meier, however, suggests a better way to understand the story, as a Theophany – “a striking, extraordinary, and temporary appearance of a divine or heavenly figure in the earthly realm… (996)” The Jesus walking across the surface of the wind driven waves is not an indifferent Jesus, unconcerned for his floundering disciples, neither is it the pop-quiz Jesus surprising his students with a test.  Rather it is Jesus demonstrating to his disciples evidence of his divine nature.

He strides across the surface of the water like Yahweh of the Old Testament:

Job 9: 8 “He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.”

Psalm 77: 19 “Your path led through the sea,
    your way through the mighty waters,
    though your footprints were not seen.”

Jesus was about to “pass by them” in the same way that the glory of YHWH passed by Moses.

Exodus 33: 22 “and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by”

In my previous reading of this story I was too critical and not critical enough.  One of these days I may eventually get it right.






[i] Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew Vol. IIL Mentor, Message, and Miracles Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1994.

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