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Historical Cultural Context
12th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year B
June 20, 2021
John J. Pilch
Faith and Loyalty

Though contemporary Western believers read this story as a “miracle,” first-century Mediterranean peasants would have seen that honor, the core value of that culture, permeates the story through and through.

Fear

Mediterranean culture trains and expects males to behave bravely, especially in the face of danger. Nothing should ever shake the courage of a man. A public expression of fear is shameful.

Besides being more powerful than ordinary human beings, Jesus is also more powerful than sea and wind.

Sirach (22:17-18) contrasts a firm resolution based on prudent understanding with a timid resolution based on foolish plans. He concludes that the latter will be unable to “withstand fear of any kind.”

In today's Gospel, there does not seem to have been any plan. At the end of the day Jesus suggested that he and his companions cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (Mk 4:35). They depart, just as they are. Sudden and violent storms are common on this sea. Surely the men who sailed and fished there knew that.

That these experienced sailors and fishermen should yield to fear (see Mk 4:40) is shameful and could be potentially damaging to their honor status if it ever became known to some outgroup like the people on either shore, or perhaps even to those in the other boats (Mk 4:36). Jesus appears to “rub it in” by asking the embarrassing question, “Why are you afraid? Is your loyalty still weak?” (lit. “have you no faith”; Mk 4:40).

Jesus’ Power

Western readers of this story struggle to understand how a human being could control nature by word alone. Jesus' Middle Eastern contemporaries had no such problem.

The first-century concern was not Jesus’ power but the honor status that derived from this power. Peasants recognized an extensive hierarchy of spirits and people who possessed power to do things ordinary humans could not do. It was imperative to know where to rank such powerful beings in order to give them proper honor.

The disciples' question, “who then is this, that even sea and wind obey him?” (Mk 4:41), is not an attempt to fathom Jesus' identity but rather to rank him properly in the honor hierarchy. Besides being more powerful than ordinary human beings, Jesus is also more powerful than sea and wind.

In the ancient world, anyone who behaved contrary to what was expected of their birth status (as Jesus seemed to do on a regular basis) posed a huge problem. Their power had to come from another source. The disciples’ question about Jesus concerns the source of his extraordinary power.

In the case of Jesus, opinion in the Gospels is mixed. Some, like the disciples in this story, are inclined to believe that he acted by the power of God, as he often claims. Others, like the scribes, believe that his power derives from the prince of demons (Mk 3:22).

Faith = Loyalty

In Western culture, and particularly the English language, faith or belief usually involves the psychological, internal, cognitive, and affective assent of the mind to truth. Such an understanding may well be present in Matthew 9:28 (“do you believe that I am able to do this?”) and a few other passages. However, in the Middle Eastern world, the Hebrew and Greek words which are translated by the English word “faith” are better translated “personal loyalty” or “personal commitment.”

In today's story, after Jesus stilled the storm he upbraided his disciples that fear of death shook their loyalty to him. Little did Jesus or any of the disciples realize how fear would again shake their loyalty to him later as he was arrested and led to certain death.


John J. Pilch
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John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.



Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go http://www.ltp.org

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