We are studying Matthew 8:23-27 for Sunday, June 13. This is the short episode in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus “stills the storm.” [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This story is found in Mark (Mark 4:35-41) and Luke (Luke 8:22-25), but we’re reading it in Matthew’s gospel. We might remember Matthew emphasizes the way Jesus fulfills scriptural prophecies, and structures the narrative around long teaching passages interspersed with narrative sections, which especially emphasize Jesus’s authority.
In Matthew’s gospel, the story comes near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry: after calling some – not all – of the disciples, and then after the Sermon on the Mount, and then after some dramatic healings – of a man with leprosy, of a centurion’s servant, and of Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus has also addressed a couple of would-be disciples, with remarks that underscore the costs of following Jesus.
Jesus has also given instructions to cross to the other side of the lake, in verse 18. This seems to be in response to the press of the “crowd,” and makes sense of the otherwise sudden reference to “the boat” in verse 23.
The trip across the lake, or “sea” as it is referred to in our text, is followed by casting out demons in the region of the Gerasenes / Gadarenes, in each of the synoptic gospels.
In Matthew’s gospel, it is also followed by Jesus’s calling Levi, and subsequently identifying “the twelve.” So, in this version, we don’t seem meant to assume that Levi/Matthew was “in the boat” when this happened.
Calming storms on the sea is a divine attribute, most specifically mentioned in Psalm 65:7, Psalm 89:9, and Psalm 107:25-29. The people who “go down to the sea in ships” in Psalm 107 sound a lot like the disciples in Matthew: they are afraid in the face of the storm, and they cry out to God in their distress.
This text – Matthew 8:23-27 – is not in the lectionary, but that doesn’t mean this story is one of those things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. The story as told in Mark is the lectionary’s gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost year B (that is, in a couple of weeks). The story of casting out demons in the land of the Gadarenes, as told in Luke, is the lectionary’s gospel reading for the same Sunday in year C. In other words, the lectionary picks out one of three versions of the story in each case. Matthew’s just isn’t the one.
CLOSER READING: In verse 24, the “storm” that happens is literally a “quake” – the Greek word that gives us our words seismograph and seismic. [So I could not help thinking of a tsunami.] The waves it generates are literally “covering up” the boat.
So it’s remarkable that Jesus is sleeping. Less remarkable, perhaps, that the others wake him up.
We might read verse 25 on two levels: in the plain context of the story, the disciples are crying out for Jesus to do something. But the disciples’ plea “Lord, save us, we are perishing!” voices Matthew’s theology, too. Jesus is the savior people need. Because people are perishing in spiritual chaos.
Jesus questions the disciples’ fear, calls them “little faiths” – same word as last week – and then “rebukes” or “warns” the wind and the waves. We might imagine Mom or Dad saying “cut it out!” to the kids bickering in the back seat of the car.
The forces of nature respond with a “great calm.” And now the disciples are astounded, and wonder who they are dealing with, because even wind and waves “listen to / pay attention to” Jesus. This tells us about the cosmic scope of Jesus’s authority.
Jesus’s tranquility in the boat is, perhaps, a demonstration of what it means not to worry or be anxious about how things are going to turn out.