The short story provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 4:35–41) is just seven verses long, but it contains four potent questions.
Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a boat that was sinking into the lake. This upheaval has been caused by a “great windstorm” (4:37). Jesus, however, is asleep. The ensuing dialogue is instructive. During this dialogue, the four questions are posed.
First, the disciples wake Jesus and ask him, somewhat accusingly, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Having been woken up, Jesus commands the storm to be still (4:39), but then he poses two short and incisive questions, in return, to the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40).
The episode ends with yet another question. The disciples, “filled with great awe” at what had happened, mused to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). And that’s where the story ends.
Four questions. Four different requests to consider. That’s how the incident progresses. And through those questions, that’s how we think more about Jesus.
It is questions that are in focus, today, in considering this passage, and indeed, this Gospel—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Indeed, many interpreters argue that Mark’s Gospel can best be characterised by the central question of Jesus: “who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The identity of Jesus is, indeed, central to this Gospel (as it is, also, in the other canonical Gospels).
A passage earlier in the Gospel, Mark 1:21–28, contains another confronting question, which a demon-possessed man asked of Jesus in the early stages of his public ministry: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24). Now this is a question worth pondering.
In Mark’s Gospel as a whole, there are (according to the NRSV) no less than 118 questions. Since there are 668 verses in total in Mark’s Gospel, this means that the reader (or hearer) of this Gospel is confronted with a question, on average, every 5.66 verses! (Why not try reading a couple of chapters through, looking out especially for the questions?)
Some of these questions are simple conversational enquiries—the kind of questions that we ask one another every day. “should we go there? should I do this? do you have any? can I get you something?” and so on. Some questions are genuine requests for information, and reflect people who really want to learn from Jesus—“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17), or “which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28), or “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus, good teacher that he is, responds with information and insight; he takes the opportunity to convert the question into a step forward in the life of discipleship.
Indeed, Jesus himself follows the rabbinic practice of teaching by questioning—he often poses a question which leads the disciples, or the crowd, into further discussion and debate (see, for instance, 3:33; 4:30; 10:3; 10:51). It is interesting to note that this is often how Jesus uses scripture; he does not simply quote it, but he says, “have you not read that…?” or, “do you not known the scripture which says…?”. (Look at 11:17; 12:10; and 12:26.) This style invites conversation and leads to deepened understanding. Scripture is not being used to squash debate, but to open up insights about God. Now that is an insight worth recalling and preserving in our current context!
As Mark tells his story, some people pose questions to Jesus which are quite sharp—and may be designed to create controversy or to challenge the authority of Jesus. For instance: “why does this fellow speak in this way? it is blasphemy! who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7); “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16); “why do your disciples do not fast?” (2:18); “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28); “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (12:14). Jesus did not shy away from the challenge to his honour and authority that such questions posed. According to Mark, he was a public debater of the first order.
Indeed, Jesus poses pointed questions of his own for his disciples and the crowds who follow him. Think about the provocations and challenges in these phrases of Jesus: “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” (4:40); “do you also fail to understand?” (7:18); “do you still not perceive or understand? are your hearts hardened? do you have eyes, and fail to see? do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17–18); “you faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? how much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). There is certainly no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in this Gospel!!
The teachings of Jesus are demanding: to his disciples, he asks, “for what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (9:36); or, with eyes fixed towards the cross, he prods them further: “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38). For their part, the disciples are not afraid to confront their leader when required, as we have seen: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Discipleship means entering into the rough-and-tumble of these difficult questions.
Theologically, perhaps the most challenging question in the Gospel is when Jesus quotes the Psalmist: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Is this an expression of the deepest despair of a human being who feels alienated, abandoned, utterly alone? Mark gives a great gift to followers of Jesus in all generations, when he takes us to the heart of the struggle which Jesus faced on the cross. This question shows us the human dimension of Jesus, as he was confronted by the starkness of life and death.
Of course, the identity of Jesus remains the central motif of this Gospel. It is the focus of the very first verse (“Jesus, Messiah, Son of God”, 1:1) and is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.
We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).
Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).
This year, as we meditate on Mark’s Gospel in our personal devotions, as we hear it read in worship, as we prepare sermons to preach from it, or however it is that we encounter it—may the questions it poses strengthen our discipleship, expand our understanding and deepen our faith.