Rembrandt, Christ in the Storm (1633)
Matthew 8: 23-27
Parallels Mark 4: 35-41, Luke 8: 22-25
23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Matthew weaves a tightly connected narrative that uses placement and word choice to give us several clues to give us insight into who Jesus is and what following him will mean for the chosen disciples. Immediately after a brief interruption where a scribe and a disciple come seeking to follow with stated or unstated conditions where language gives us clues that the scribe probably does not follow, but the disciple likely does we are brought back into a trio of confrontations which give us insight into the power that Jesus’ wields and encourage us to wonder with his disciples, “What sort of man is this?” The scene transitions quickly with Jesus getting into the boat (presumably of the boats of the four fishermen called in Matthew 4: 18-22) and his disciples follow him including, presumably, the disciple who asked Jesus previously for leave to bury his father.
Jesus has among his disciples several who are familiar with the Sea of Galilee because it was the place where they worked as fishermen. Boats at this time are small compared to sea faring ships of modern times, but the storm is literally a ‘great shaking that occurred on the sea.’ The story in both the Markan and Matthean version of this narrative is tied to the story that follows with the Gedarene demoniacs and the original hearers may have understood the storm as demonic and attempting to prevent Jesus from crossing to the other side. In our modern language we can refer to storms as an ‘act of God’ but in the spiritually porous worldview of our ancestors in the faith, spiritual forces both good and evil were actively at work in their world in not only disease but also in weather events like storms or famine. Additionally, at both the crucifixion and the resurrection in Matthew the same word that is the ‘great shaking on the sea’ (seismos) is used for the earthquake in Matthew 27 and 28. There is additional resonance with he crucifixion as the word for sleep here can have the same figurative usage we have in English when we say someone has ‘fallen asleep’ as a way of speaking about death and the word for waking (both by the disciples and Jesus getting up, various forms of the Greek egeipoo) is the same word used for rising up when talking about the resurrection in Matthew 27 and 28.
Another resonance within this story would be the story of Jonah, where Jonah (like Jesus) is asleep in the hull of a small boat while a great storm is overwhelming the small craft. While Jonah’s sleeping through the storm on a sea faring (therefore more robust vessel) is more plausible than the small boat that Jesus was on, but there does seem to be a literary connection with the basic narrative of the stories:
- Departure by boat
- a violent storm at sea
- a sleeping main character
- badly frightened sailors
- a miraculous stilling related to the main character
- a marveling response by the sailors (Marcus, 2000, p. 337)
The literary resonance with the Jonah shines an interesting light upon the question the disciples ask of “who is this.” In Jonah’s narrative the one who provides the great calm upon the waters is the God of Israel, while here Jesus ‘rebukes’ the wind and sea (the word rebuke can be used to silence another person but also can be used in casting out a demon, ex. Matthew 17: 18) and there becomes a great calm. The ‘great shaking’ of the storm and the ‘great calm’ of the sea after the storm are connected and yet whatever the source of the ‘great shaking’ the one who by rebuking the wind and sea brings about the great calm is greater.
Sea of Galilee Boat or “Jesus Boat” in the Yidal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar, Tiberias Israel Ancient fishing boat from 1st Century AD. Boat is 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide.
Unique to Matthew’s telling of this narrative is the disciples’ plea to Jesus, “Lord, save us!” This pairing of Lord and save also resonates with the language of the Hebrew scriptures in relation to the LORD the God of Israel saving the people (2 Kings 19: 19; Psalms 6:4, 55: 16, 106: 47, 109: 26; 116:4, 118:25, 143:9; Isaiah 36:8, 37:20, 38: 28; Jeremiah 30:11). Matthew again invites us to consider who is Jesus in relation to the LORD the God of Israel. Instead of using direct quotations, like earlier in the narrative, now Matthew narrates the story in a manner that alludes to several times in Israel’s story where the LORD acted and allusively invites us into the position of the little faith ones in the boat with Jesus who are asking, “Who then is this that event the wind and the sea are obedient/subject to him?”
As mentioned above when commenting on Matthew 6:30 the translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way that Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is perceived. While “you of little faith” is a correct translation, it is impossible to say this without it being heard as an insult which I do not think is the intention in Matthew. I am going against the grain of the way this term has been read, but the ‘little faith ones’ are always Jesus’ disciples who are caught between the ‘great shakings’ of the storms and the ‘great peace.’ This phrase can be translated harshly as, “why are you cowardly—you of little faith?” but my reading of this is much gentler, spoken not in the commanding voice that rebuked the wind and sea but a softer, more compassionate, “why are you afraid my little faith ones?” Jesus never goes out and calls the ‘great faith ones’ but instead intentionally sticks with these little faith ones and never offers to increase their faith. The little faith ones are the ones who seems to respond in wonder to what Jesus is doing and can be in the place to ask, “who then is this.” Others who we will soon meet in the story will have answers to this question, but as little faith ones we are invited to be astonished and wonder what sort of man Jesus is and how he might be related to the LORD the God of Israel.