The Storm at sea

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
Aug. 21 2004
Reproduced with Permission

A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (Matt 8:14-27).

The Sea of Galilee is a harp-shaped lake whose surface is about 700 feet below sea level, stretching about thirteen miles from north to south. I once drove around it in a rented car, over the bridge at the north side under which flow the melt waters of snows on 9,230 foot-high Mount Hermon to the northeast, and over the bridge to the south which is the beginning of the Jordan River. The area is part of the great rift valley that continues through the Dead Sea and on into Africa. The lake is about 150 feet deep at maximum depth, teeming with fish. Lush vegetable gardens and fruit orchards are found around the lake, although its eastern shores are steeper and less fertile, the part settled by gentiles at the time of Jesus.

Storms can be severe on the lake, when cold and therefore heavy air from the Mediterranean crosses over the 1,200 foot high mountains to the west, or descends from the Mount Hermon range to the north, to displace the warm and light air over the 700 feet below sea level of the lake. Even Peter and the other disciples, though they were experienced fishermen, were apparently caught by surprise by this sudden and awesome storm told in the Gospel narrative. For it appears to have been at night that they were crossing. Matthew wrote in 8:16 that it was evening when He cured the masses, after which He boarded the boat with the disciples to cross to the other side. Thus we assume it was night when the fearful storm broke with waves lashing over the sides of the boat.

Despite the rough seas, the splashing water, Jesus slept on the cushion kept under the coxswain's seat, while the veteran fishermen wrestled to keep the boat headed into the waves and thus save it from sinking. Lucky disciples, for they had the Lord and Creator of the world on board. When they awakened Him, He did not share their excitement and fear in the least, so it appears. He stood up - ordinarily not a wise thing to do on a boat being swamped by the waves - and He "rebuked the wind and the seas." The wind and the seas apparently "heard" His rebuke, and viola! "there was a dead calm." Every wave stopped waving, and the angry wind shut down its roar and power, all in a split second. In perhaps no other story in the Bible is the majestic power of God revealed so dramatically. The disciples were duly awed: "What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

As Man, Jesus snapped the rebuke to wind and sea, and as God He obeyed the command by deploying divine power. The wind that had been pouring down from the mountains stopped just where it was. The wind over the lake likewise stood still. And downwind everything stopped too, preventing a vacuum from forming. The waves didn't just coast to a stop; they flattened out over the thirteen mile long sea, as though pressed into a mirror-smooth shape by a flatiron. Indeed Jesus had power, for of Him it is written:

"In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end" (Hebrews 1:10-12).

If He founded the earth, and if the heavens are the work of His hands, then these works are now in the hands and the power of the God-Man who stood up in that boat. He knows the whole history of the cosmos. If a "Big Bang" detonated our cosmos into being over thirteen billion years ago, then it was this Jesus, who with the Father and the Spirit created it. We bow with new astonishment and with humble reverence to Jesus standing in the boat, and issuing command to wind and wave.

Chrysostom observes that Jesus was using the occasion to teach the apostles an unforgettable lesson, to make them mindful of their foolish lack of faith in Him: "He permits the storm, that by their deliverance they might attain to a clearer perception of the benefit.... He puts an end to the tempests of their soul, rebuking them, and saying, "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith:" instructing them also, that men's fear is wrought not by the approach of the temptations, but by the weakness of their mind" (Sermon 27).

The Demoniacs are healed

When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, "What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" (Matt 8:28-29).

Characteristic of the devil is his jealousy of man and the desire to harm him. Living among tombs is not a pleasant way of life, Fierce anger is the opposite of love and peace. "The purpose of demonic possession [is to] torment and destroy the divine likeness with which man was created" (NIV, note to Mark 5:5). The devil - hating God who is beautiful, who is joyful, serene, orderly, truthful - turns himself into what is ugly, hateful, always perturbed, disorderly, deceitful. In this case the demons are aware that Jesus will judge them at the final judgment. They are in discomfort and turmoil at His nearness. "For they supposed that their punishment was now close upon them, and feared, as even now about to fall into vengeance. You see, that they had sinned, they could not deny, but they demand not to suffer their punishment before the time" (Chrysostom).

Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, "If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine." And he said to them, "Go!" So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water (Matt 8:31-32).

The dramatic rush of the swine into the lake occurred likely on a location on the east coast where a steep hill descends abruptly into the water. Ugliness and turmoil is again a mark of demons, for the Jews considered swine to be unclean; and the demons were probably gleeful at being able to ruin the business of the swineherds and the owners of the hogs, and contaminating the lake. "But for what intent did the devils destroy the swine? Everywhere they have labored to drive men to dismay, and everywhere they rejoice in destruction" (Chrysostom).

The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood (Matt 8:33-34).

Maybe it appears at first glance that the sortie of Jesus into this gentile territory was not a great success. The swineherds were not converted, the people of the area remained inhospitable. But Chrysostom sizes up the general impact on this experience for the apostles, whom Jesus was teaching: "For the power of Christ was gloriously proclaimed, and the wickedness of the demons, from which He delivered those possessed by them, was more plainly indicated; and how they lack power to touch even swine, without permission from the God of all." Moreover, the story of the work of Jesus would surely be told over and over again in that territory, and the ones freed from the demon would become evangelizers to open the people to eventually receive the faith.

Chrysostom then launches into an impassioned description of the unfortunate condition of sinners who love their sin and fear conversion. As we read, let us pray for hardened sinners, for such as have committed themselves to evil company and occupations that make a business of evil.

For the history indeed is this, but we are to know assuredly, that the swinish sort of men are especially liable to the operations of the demons. And as long as they are men that suffer such things, they are often able yet to prevail; but if they are become altogether swine, they are not only possessed, but are also cast down the precipice. . . . These things any one may see happening now also, even many in the tombs possessed of evil spirits, whom nothing restrains from their madness; not iron, nor chain, nor multitude of men, nor advice, nor admonition, nor terror, nor threat, nor any other such thing. For so when any man is dissolute, eager after all embraces, he differs not at all from the demoniac, but goes about naked like him, clad indeed in garments, but deprived of the true covering, and stripped of his proper glory; cutting himself not with stones, but with sins more hurtful than many stones. Who then shall be able to bind such a one? Who, to stay his unseemliness and frenzy, his way of never coming to himself, but forever haunting the tombs? For such are the resorts of the harlots, full of much evil savor, of much rottenness.