Posted June 20, 2021
Yr B Ordinary Time, 12th Sunday
The disciples yell at Jesus, ‘Don’t you care?’ ‘We’re going down!’ Jesus wakes up and puts everything right in a jiffy. And there was a great calm; and they were filled with awe. (Mark 4: 35-41)
There are lots of stories like this in the Gospels, where Jesus with a single word or gesture works a fantastic miracle. Google will guide you to lots of sermons on such stories. The unvarying message of these sermons is: When the storm comes, turn to Jesus. He’ll calm the storm and put everything right.
My problem is: I find that in reality Jesus is not often like that. Very often, when innocent, vulnerable people are in a fearsome crisis, Jesus ignores them. I once prayed and prayed to Jesus for a helpless person, all alone in the world, abused by cruel, self-obsessed people. Jesus ignored my prayers. So when I read today’s story, phrases like: ‘And there was a great calm’ and ‘They were filled with awe’ don’t resonate at all with me. I get stuck on: Don’t you care?
There are respectable precedents in the Bible for complaining to God. Think of Jeremiah, or Habakkuk, or Job. The difference is that in those cases the story has a happy ending. God proves the complainant wrong. God shows, if not immediately, as in today’s story, then soon after, that he does care. God does act, and when he acts, he goes beyond our wildest dreams.
I am still a bit worried, though, about miracle stories like this one, and by all the splendid sermons they have inspired, all repeating the message: ‘Just turn to Jesus and your problem will be solved.’ If that is really the lesson of today’s story one wonders why it was completely lost on the disciples in the remaining chapters of St Mark’s Gospel. Indeed, only a few chapters after this story Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’, apparently for thinking that Jesus is about miracles; and later on, when Jesus is betrayed and the disciples’ lives are in peril, and they all run away, there was no Jesus to wake up with a yawn and calm the storm and put everything right. There was only the cross and its torments.
I’m tempted to think that stories about the miracle-working Jesus got into the Christian tradition from pagan stories about individuals proving their special relationship with the divine by working miracles. But, then, why did the Gospel writers themselves preserve such stories? Is it that they too were naïve, and judged that the best way to present Jesus as a divine figure was to follow the pagan literature in portraying him as a wonder-worker?
Or was there perhaps some more subtle motive? Is it perhaps that the Gospel writers preserved those stories to set us up, so as to shock us all the more later on when they presented Jesus as he really was, not a miracle worker but ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’, ‘despised and rejected by people’; as ‘one smitten by God and afflicted’? In other words, did the Gospel writers want us to understand that miracle stories were distractions from the heart of the Christian message? Whatever the case, it remains a fact of experience that our prayers to Jesus are often left unanswered, and ‘Don’t you care?’ often comes to our lips or at least flickers before our minds.
A common reaction to the problem is to abandon faith. Why continue to believe in what never happens? But then you are left with an even bigger problem. All those beautiful things in life, the joy of being loved and of being able to love, the enchantment of witnessing a life beautifully lived, the thrill of being part of a universe that stuns us with its beauty – did all that come about by accident? Is it all a dream? The atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said: ‘We are born without reason … and die by chance.’ In other words, everything is meaningless. Including philosophy, one assumes – though he doesn’t say that.
The alternative to abandoning faith would be to hang on undaunted to the conviction that one day we shall meet Jesus face to face. We shall see him as he is. We shall be like him. He will rejoice with us at the way we went on trusting him from day to day, from year to year, all through life, even in circumstances where there was not a glimmer of light. He will tell us: ‘We have shared the same love and trust! You see – of course I cared!’ Then there will be a great calm; and we shall be full of awe.
That’s the miracle we were waiting for!
Fr Tom Deidun