Jesus walks on the water

45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49 But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51 Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii[a] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the Mark’s community

The world at the time of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today/challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The World of the Text

Text and textual features                              

This rich text, structured as a narrative, is also found in the Gospels of Matthew and John. Although it plays a critical role in the theological scheme of Mark’s Gospel is one of the most well-known miracle stories in the New Testament, it is also one of the most misunderstood. At the heart of this text is an exploration of identity in which faith plays in both order and chaos. For the people in the boat, the question is the identity of Jesus. How can this man they have known appear, walking on water?

For the people Mark wrote for, the question of Jesus identity has been answered. The reaction of the disciples and the response of Jesus therefore take charge. Jesus’ words are an invitation to calm in their struggles, adversities and confusion as emerging Christians in the Roman Empire.

The story of Jesus walking on water follows directly on from the Feeding of the 5000. Both of these miracle texts are inextricably linked from a thematic point of view. As a single unit, these texts provide a convincing demonstration of some of the disciples’ explicit misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission. The twelve notably get it wrong as the Gospel develops. The modern reader is invited to experience both stories as a combined eucharistic drama that reveals once again, Jesus’ true identity in the face of real adversity.

An important textual feature of Mark’s Gospel is the term immediately. Throughout this Gospel, we find the term being used over and over again. It comes from the ancient Greek term, eutheos. It is used twice in this text in reference to Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. The deliberate inclusion of the term emphasizes the ongoing urgency of God’s mission that unfolds throughout Jesus’ ministry amongst the poor, weak and vulnerable.

Prior to this teaching block in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been travelling through Galilee proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every sickness and disease (Matt 4:23-25). This text is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), the first ‘teaching block’ of Matthew’s gospel.

After the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12), the sermon contains 14 statements. Matthew’s community, rich in Jewish tradition, would have seen the significance of 14 (2 x 7, in Jewish tradition, 7 is the ‘holy’ or ‘complete’ number) being chosen by Matthew and recognise them as ‘something of God’.

Characters & Setting:

Although somewhat confusing, geography is of crucial importance to this text. Jesus’ first instruction to the disciples is to cross the lake to Bethsaida. This is at the north eastern corner of the lake (Sea of Galilee) where it meets the river Jordon. At the conclusion of the text the disciples’ journey ends at Gennesaret which is found on the western edge of the lake.

The lack of geographical accuracy invites us to wonder about what Mark has heard. Does he not know the geography well enough to correct this? Or could this ‘error’ indicate that two independent texts were originally merged by the Gospel author to form a new story. Either way, the ‘irritation’ reminds us of the need to focus on purpose in writing, not specific detail. Truth does not lie in factual accuracy; it lies in what the passage could mean to the people for whom it was written.  

As a narrative, the passage is structured into three key stages:

  • opening instructions
  • a moment of chaos, and
  • Jesus’ intervention.

From the outset, Jesus is very active in this story. Initially, he appears to instruct the disciples to go ahead of him and cross the lake on their own. This could indicate Jesus’ desire for them to become independent missionaries at this point in the Gospel. The Greek term anagkazo implies an emphatic direction not seen in any other Markan text.  At this point, Jesus clearly needs to be alone as he dismisses the crowd who appear in the previous miracle story. Like in The Transfiguration (Mk 9: 2-8) and The Mount of Olives (Mk 14: 32-42), Jesus is portrayed at prayer upon a mountain setting. All of these prayer experiences happen at night, precede an important decision and serve as a refuge from the increasing crowds that swell around him. Clearly, he desires solitude in the midst of surrounding chaos caused by the immense interest in his ministry. In the Old Testament and Mark’s Gospel mountains were important places of Sacred presence. This includes Mount Sinai and Mount Zion (Gen 24: 14, Ex 3:1, Deut 11: 29, Josh 8:30, Ex 19:3 & Ps 68:16).

The mid-point of this text abounds with descriptive detail. Everything appears to unravel for the disciples. In their isolation, strong winds whip up and they appear to be overcome by the natural world. This could well refer to the Sharkia, a well known easterly wind common in this area. The darkness of the night emphasizes this very real moment of chaotic disorder and human vulnerability. Things could not get much worse for the disciples. The sense of separation and the disciples’ desperate need for restoration is most evident as they appear to strain at the oars (bazanizein – torment) to gain a grip on the sea that is closing in on them. In the ancient world the sea was at times, a place of deep fear and terror.

A crucial section of this dramatic experience follows as Jesus responds to the unfolding chaos. He actively comes towards the disciples upon the sea. The Greek term epi tes thalasses used for walking on water means just that. Mark deliberately draws upon Old Testament motifs of God overcoming the chaos caused at sea. In Job, ‘God alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea.’ In Psalm 77:16-19 ‘When the waters saw it was you they recoiled, shuddering to their depths…You strode across the sea, you marched across the ocean.’ (see also Job 9:8, 38:16 & Sir 24:5). The motif of walking on water reflects a critical interplay between Jesus’ mission and God’s action in Israelite history. The most obvious experience for the Israelites was the crossing of the Red Sea, a seminal moment celebrating God’s saving presence (Ex 14: 21-28 & Is 43: 16). The key reference to Jesus ‘passing them by’ is also a clear allusion to Sacred moments in Israelite history for Moses and Elijah (Ex 33: 19-23, 34:6 & 1 Kings 19:11). For Mark, Jesus is a complete reflection of God’s self, a powerful indication of Divine existence and Jesus’ loving origins in God.

As Jesus does not utter any words, it appears that Jesus’ mere presence calms the raging waters. Order and restoration follow on from Jesus simply coming to and entering the disciples’ boat. This alludes to other miracle stories in Mark’s Gospel, including the healing miracles, where Jesus is not distant but chooses to be right in the midst of human vulnerability and need. Strong links can be made here also with Mk 4: 35-41 where Jesus calms a previous raging storm in the disciples’ presence.

The further crucial aspect of this section is Jesus’ profound self declaration, “It is I”. The Greek term ego eimi is identical with God’s self disclosure to Moses in the Old Testament. There is a clear allusion here to Ex 3:4 and Isa 41:4 & 43: 10-11 where God utters God’s true identity in a moment of loving intimacy with Moses at Mount Sinai. In Mark’s text Jesus holds his disciples in a loving embrace of reassurance and provides them with hope as he utters the true depth of his being. This is coupled with an instruction, ‘do not be afraid.’ What follows is a remark reflecting the disciples’ ongoing astonishment and misunderstanding in the face of Jesus’ presence as their hearts harden (see ref. to Pharisees Mk 3:5). At this point in the Gospel Jesus’ closest followers appear to be aligned with opposing parties including the Pharisees and Sadducees. The irony could not be more stark as the Markan author sets out to confirm Jesus as the Son of God (Mk 1:1 & Mk 15: 39).

Ideas/phrases/concepts:

Order and Chaos

This text is like a pendulum that swings constantly between order and chaos, darkness and light and fear and astonishment. In regards to our human condition, there are so many levels where we can connect to these themes from our own lived experience. The beauty of this text is that it does not avoid human vulnerability as it symbolically demonstrates Jesus deep connection to God in the context of an impending disaster and loss of faith.

Identity and Belief

A key concept that is brought to maturity throughout this dramatic text is that of identity and its crucial link to presence. At the core of the story is the revelation of Jesus’ true identity and its impact on others. Power is key to Jesus’ identity that is grounded in love for the poor and weak. This capacity for such power puts Jesus in alignment with God who is the source of all being. This episode challenges us to consider who we are in the presence of others and how Christ calls us to transform fear into belief and darkness into light. It is essentially a story of hope.

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

WORLD IN FRONT OF THE TEXT

Questions for the teacher

Questions for the teacher:

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/challenges

When taken literally, this well-known text falls apart very quickly and loses traction for the modern reader. If we are to seek true meaning from it we need to understand its original purpose in establishing the identity of Jesus, but move beyond it, to the symbolism found within it. The inclusion of key themes central to the Israelite faith resonate with features of contemporary life: fear, confusion; security; chaos and order. As this text draws us in to the fabric of her being, we are called to move beyond the literal in order to encounter her richness and wealth of spiritual wisdom for us today. At various points in our lives, different vignettes of this story will hold meaning for us and connect with our lived experience. The meaning we receive will be truly dependent upon our personal story and spirituality that we bring to the text. 

In today’s culture of rational secularisation this text challenges us to consider our experience of the Sacred and what difference real presence can make to others who we encounter every day. This text offers us all a Divine invitation to be vulnerable and know our limits as we navigate life and come towards God’s loving embrace more fully in the here and now.