Jesus stops the weather.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 November

Mark 4.35-41, Matthew 8.18, 23-27, Luke 8.22-25.

Right before this story, Jesus had a really long day. He’d been teaching the crowds, likely healing the sick, and he needed some sack time. So he got the idea to cross the Galilee’s lake.

Mark 4.35-36 KWL
35 Jesus told them when that day became evening, “Can we cross to the far side?”
36 Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus as-is into the boat. Other boats came with him.
Matthew 8.18 KWL
Jesus, seeing a crowd round him, ordered his students to go to the far side of the lake.
Luke 8.22 KWL
This happened one day: Jesus entered a boat with his students
and told them, “Can we cross to the far side of the lake?”
Matthew 8.23 KWL
Entering the boat, Jesus’s students followed him.

Luke called this particular body of water a λίμνης/límnis, “lake,” although the New Testament frequently refer to it as a θάλασσα/thálassa, “sea.” Homer used it to refer to the Mediterranean, but ancient Greeks really just meant any large body of water. Properly, our English word “sea” is saltwater, and connected to the ocean. (It’s why the way-bigger Great Lakes aren’t seas: Connected to the ocean, but they’re freshwater.) This lake is freshwater, 166 square kilometers (64 square miles), and 212 meters below sea level. Mark Twain liked to compare it to Lake Tahoe, which is in my part of the world—but Tahoe is a mile high and 490 square kilometers, so I’m figuring Twain just eyeballed it.

The Galilee’s lake/“sea.”

Today, and originally, it was called Kinneret. Nu 34.11 In Greek this became Γεννησαρέτ/Ghennisarét (KJV “Gennesaret,” Mt 14.34, Mk 6.53, Lk 5.1) but the Galilee’s ruler Antipas Herod had renamed it “Tiberias” Jn 6.1 to suck up to the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus. The locals weren’t fans of the emperor, nor the new name. Obviously some of ’em still used the original. But if you were in earshot of some Herodian who wanted to demand you only call it “Tiberias,” you could get away with calling it “the Galilee’s lake.”

I crossed it on a speedboat, which took about an hour. By way of comparison, Jesus’s students were sailing, which takes longer, unless you’re rowing, which takes even longer.

So Jesus, who had a nice comfortable cushion to rest on, expected to catch a few hours’ shuteye. But Kinneret is notorious for its unpredictable weather.

Mark 4.37-38 KWL
37 A great windstorm began. Waves were throwing water into the boat, so the boat was already filled.
38 Jesus was in the stern on a cushion, sleeping.
The students roused him and told him, “Teacher, don’t you care we’re dying?”
Matthew 8.24-25 KWL
24 Look, a great shaking happened on the lake, causing the boat to be covered in waves.
Jesus was asleep, 25 and coming to rouse Jesus, they said, “Master! Save us! We’re dying!”
Luke 8.23-24 KWL
23 Jesus fell asleep while they sailed.
A windstorm came down on the lake, and they were swamped and in danger.
24A Coming to awaken Jesus, they said, “Chief, chief, we’re dying!”

Matthew describes it as a great σεισμὸς/seismós, “shaking,” a word we tend to use for earthquakes, and maybe an earthquake triggered the storm. Regardless this windstorm was big; anywhere between a strong wind and hurricane. It meant they had to reef the sail and row, but the winds were enough to swamp the boat. They were in danger of capsizing.

Yet none of this woke Jesus. Which Christians have historically interpreted as a likely-supernatural confidence in his Father to keep him alive to complete his mission, but y’know, Jesus might have been just that tired.

Waking Jesus.

If the Mishna is to be believed, Pharisee teachers were hugely respected. Downright revered. Even to outrageous, stupid degrees. In several passages of the Mishna, the rabbis’ students would dress them, feed them, wash all the dust and droppings off their feet, and so forth. And in Christian legends, it sounds like early Christian teachers were often venerated just as much.

But allow me to remind you who wrote the Mishna: Those very same rabbis. And I remind you the only time we read of one of Jesus’s students washing his feet, was when Mary of Bethany did it. Jn 12.3 (Yes she was a student. Jesus let her be one. Lk 10.39-42 She may not have been a regular, but she counts.) So I have my doubts. I wonder whether the rabbis made up and inserted all these stories of profound devotion, just so they could quote ’em to their students and complain, “Y’know his students showed him more respect than you do me.”

Whether Jesus’s students acted like this around him or not, remember people tend to totally forget their manners and propriety in desperate times. You might ordinarily never pester your pastor while he naps. But if you really do fear you’re dying, so much for that. Mark describes Jesus’s students as so freaked out, they actually treated him with disrespect: “Teacher, don’t you care we’re dying?” (And now we see some of the snarky attitude we occasionally see towards God in Psalms.)

More than likely the students expected Jesus to join them in trying to save the boat. Grab whatever’s available and start bailing. Grab an oar, or board, or anything, and paddle for shore. Identify whichever one of them had pissed off the LORD like Jonah, Jh 1.4 so they could toss him overboard. But otherwise, what else could Jesus do?

Here’s what he did: He got up and told the weather to stop it. And it did.

Mark 4.39-40 KWL
39 Rising, Jesus told off the wind. He told the lake, “Shut up and be quiet!”
And the wind stopped. It became very still.
40 Jesus told the students, “What are you, cowards? Haven’t you faith yet?”
Matthew 8.26 KWL
Jesus told them, “What are you, cowards? ‘Little-faiths’?”
Then rising, he told off the lake, and it became very still.
Luke 8.24-25 KWL
24B Rising, he told off the wind and raging waters, and they stopped. It became still.
25A Jesus told his students, “Where’s your faith?”

None of that placid KJV-style “Peace; be still.” Mark says he used two blunt Greek commands: Σιώπα/sióma, “Be silent!” and πεφίμωσο/pefímoso “Be muzzled!” My translation is the English equivalent we tend to use nowadays, although we can also make a good case for, “Be quiet or I will make you be quiet.”

Yep, Jesus told the wind and water to shut up. And it did.

God and the weather.

A few months ago I wrote about hurricanes and bad theodicy, because the United States had gone through hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which flooded Texas and Florida, and Puerto Rico is still devastated. Thing is, most people consider weather to be an act of God. True now; true back in Jesus’s day.

Pantheists figure the universe is God, so nature and God are interchangeable. When the weather does its thing, it’s really God doing his thing. But even people who know better, regularly assume God has a controlling power in storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteorites: The mightier it is, the more people assume the Almighty is behind it. Nature is the fist of God.

Don’t forget what happens next: If the Almighty is behind the disaster, what might God have meant by the disaster? Why’d he choose to smite a town, flood a city, scatter a trailer park to the four winds? Why’d he kill all those people?

Note how seldom these same people identify God as behind good weather. If there’s peace, order, and harmony, God rarely comes up. If there’s utter destructive chaos, God immediately gets blamed, ’cause these folks figure nature’s proper state is this peace and harmony. Not chaos. Even though the process of entropy—of things wearing out and falling apart, things going from order to chaos—kinda suggests nature’s proper state is precisely this chaos. The idea that nature is good, calm, and benign, comes far more from their assumptions than science. Or religion. Ge 1.2 But I digress.

This assumption that weather is good when God is happy, and deadly when God is pissed, is functionally the same thing pantheists believe. And it’s pretty much everywhere in human culture.

So when someone tells the weather to shut up and be quiet… it’s functionally the same as telling God to shut up and go away. In the minds of Jesus’s students, that’s kinda what he did. To them, he didn’t just stop the weather. He stopped God.

Scared the living [poo] out of them.

Mark 4.41 KWL
The students feared a great fear, and told one another, “So who is he?”
—because both the wind and the lake obey him.
Matthew 8.27 KWL
The people were amazed, saying, “What sort of person is this?
—because both the winds and the lake obey him.
Luke 8.25 KWL
25B Frightened, they were amazed, saying to one another, “So who is he?”
—because he commanded the winds and water, and they obey him.

Most Christians shrug this off: Of course Jesus didn’t stop God. ’Cause he is God. Weather wasn’t doing as he wanted, so he ordered it to behave, and it did. That’s God’s prerogative, so it doesn’t weird us out when Jesus exercised it. We get it.

Well… we get it when we read this story. We miss it entirely when we read the newspaper. We go right back to thinking God always controls the weather. So tornadoes, volcanoes, and droughts are all acts of God. We entirely forget weather operates independent of God, separate from his will. If it doesn’t, Jesus’s act of stopping it was hypocrisy, unnecessarily scaring, drowning, and showing off for his students. Which ain’t his character, so I don’t buy that. (Calvinists might.)

Nature, just like humans, is a creation of God. Obviously we act in ways which’re contrary to God’s intentions. We sin. Well, sometimes nature does too. Sickness, disease, crippling injury, old age—all these things run counter to God’s intentions. The few cases in the bible where God causes these things, get way too much credit. Ordinarily, nature doesn’t follow him any more than we do.

Misplaced fear and missing faith.

In Matthew, Jesus rebuked his students for their cowardice before stopping the weather. In Mark and Luke, after.

I have heard interpretations which claim the students were afraid of Jesus. After all, he’d just done the impossible and stopped the weather. But the reason Christians historically haven’t interpreted it that way is because of the way Matthew told it: Jesus rebuked their fears before he acted. Clearly he hadn’t done anything yet to make ’em afraid of him; ergo they were afraid of the weather. Any interpretations which claim the students were scared of Jesus are understandable, but don’t work for Matthew, and therefore don’t really work.

I’ve also heard interpretations which don’t entirely understand what faith is. Properly, faith is trust in God. Or trust in anything; it’s “the solid basis of hope, the proof of actions we’ve not seen.” He 11.1 KWL But in popular culture, including popular Christian culture, faith is the ability to believe really hard, and wish things into reality. It’s not faith in someone or something; it’s magic.

So when Jesus rebuked the kids for lacking faith, that’s how these Christians spin it: These students had fervently and desperately prayed for the weather to stop, for them to not drown, for the tiniest chance that God might intervene. But because they didn’t believe hard enough, God was stingy and didn’t answer yes. That’s why they had to turn to Jesus, who could believe really hard God would stop the weather.

Okay, no.

Jesus didn’t rebuke ’em for not having faith when they asked God for help. He rebuked ’em for not asking God for help. Because if they had, God would’ve helped. Because the second they turned to Jesus, who is God, he helped.

God needs to be our first resort. Not our last. But that’s not what happened in the students’ case. First they tried to save themselves. Tried really hard. Didn’t rouse Jesus; didn’t pray to the Father either. They expected they could solve the problem on their own, without having to bug God till things got dire. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That’s pride talking.

The students should’ve woken Jesus long before they were screaming out in fear of death. But they didn’t trust him enough to do so.

We have no reason to put Jesus off till things get desperate. We should always, easily turn to him first. If we don’t, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we do have faith in him, are following him, do believe he can meet our needs. Perhaps even with a miracle that flies in the face of our entire worldview. But do we trust him that much? I sure hope so.

Christ Almighty!