“Other boats were with him”. Mark 4:36
One Sunday evening there was an exercise in Lectio Divina at the church. The Scripture was a familiar story, the calming of the storm from Saint Mark’s Gospel Chapter 4, a story many people will remember from school days, a story memorable because of the images it would have conjured, (and, perhaps, because of the fear it might have evoked among those familiar with the power of the sea!).
Even if the story had never been told at school, anyone who attends church regularly will probably have heard the story many times through the years. That Sunday evening, I remembered having used words from the passage to lead meditations. ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ was a question that could prompt many thoughts and lead one down many avenues of reflection. Yet in the stillness of that Sunday evening in Dublin, I noticed a sentence that I could not honestly remember reading before, ‘There were also other boats with him’. If there were other boats with him, why in all the sermons and all the teaching I had heard on the passage had no-one ever talked about the other boats? Having heard expository preachers who would work through a Scripture passage, line by line, it seemed odd that the other boats had not got a mention.
Perhaps the fault lay with me, perhaps I had simply not been paying attention when the preacher had asked questions about these other boats. Perhaps, listening to the story, there had always been so much concern with the extraordinary elements that the more mundane details had been overlooked.
A fascination grew with these other boats. If they are an irrelevant detail, why does Saint Mark take the trouble to mention them? He is very concise in his writing, he doesn’t use unnecessary word; if he refers to there being other boats crossing the lake, then he has a purpose in doing so. Perhaps his intention was to establish the veracity of the story; perhaps he wishes to explain what happened to someone who was in one of those other boats.
Straying from the theme of the reading, the power of Jesus over the wind and the waves, questions formed about those other boats. Who was in them? Where were they going? What were there thoughts on the incident?
Perhaps Mark had his own purpose in mentioning the boats and it was a purpose not relevant to people reading his words twenty centuries later; perhaps it’s not important to note that there were other boats crossing the lake. Perhaps it’s like asking what Jesus wrote in the sand when confronted by the woman taken in adultery in saint John Chapter 4, an intriguing detail but not one of significance.
But perhaps it is important if the fact that other boats were with him helps us to gain insights into Jesus. when we look at ourselves, few of us would rank amongst the closest of Jesus’ disciples. If we had been witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, we would have been standing at the edge of the crowd. Maybe we would not even have been in the crowd; maybe we are simply onlookers viewing from a safe distance.
The other boats, were they filled with safely distant onlookers? Were they the people who feared getting too close to Jesus? People interested in Jesus and what he might say, but not prepared to make any commitment to him?
What happens when you’re at a distance? You miss the action, you miss what is going on; you miss the opportunity to be first hand witnesses. What did it mean to be in one of those other boats? It meant boat meant enduring the same storm as those in Jesus’ boat without having the reassurance of his presence. It meant sharing the experience of the ensuing calm without being aware of Jesus’ power. It meant missing life changing moments.
Being in one of those other boats crossing the sea would have been a warning against saying one was a friend of Jesus, while not being prepared to stay close to him. Perhaps Saint Mark’s purpose is to gently nudge those who try to be disciples at a distance.
‘Other boats were with him’. In which boat are we? How close to Jesus do we travel?