On one occasion when I was having dinner with friends at an Italian restaurant, one of my friends saw a menu item described as “Pasta Trio.” In his excitement about the possibility of a huge plate filled with three different kinds of pasta he failed to notice the description of the dish; the menu described it as a “tasting plate.”
When the dish arrived, my friend was heartbroken. The “Pasta Trio” consisted of one raviolo, a small lump of fettuccine and two small tortellini. He complained to the waiter, but the waiter pointed out that the menu stated clearly that it was a “tasting plate.” True to the words of the menu, my friend enjoyed just a taste of three types of pasta. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading the disciples were just as confused as my friend, even though they too had fair warning of what was to come.
A little while before they began to cross to the other side of the lake, Jesus had said to this disciples, “I speak in parables to those outside our group, but the mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you.” (Mark 4:11) Jesus used simple images, drawn from common experience, to speak to the crowds about God. However, he took time to explain to his disciples the meaning of the images he used. (Mark 4:34)
After he had finished speaking to the crowds he instructed the disciples to sail to the other side of the lake. They sailed into a squall, panicked, and complained to Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) One would think that the disciples would have understood Jesus better, but they had no better understanding of him than did the crowds. The disciples failed not only to understand Jesus’ teaching; they failed to understand his actions as well. After he calmed the storm they wondered, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mark 4:41)
Jesus’ parables described God as solicitous, providential and merciful. His healing miracles mirrored his words, and the calming of the storm portrayed God’s relationship with creation as familiar and loving. In this Sunday’s selection from Mark’s Gospel Jesus spoke directly to the sea and wind as one might speak to a misbehaving pet, “Quiet! Be still!” (Mark 4:39) The disciples had many opportunities to understand Jesus and his message, but they failed to do so.
There were numerous images of God popular during Jesus’ lifetime. Some of the Jerusalem Pharisees seemed to have imagined God as existing to serve their self-esteem. The Herodians used God as a means to maintain political power and control the people. The Zealots viewed God as condoning violence. The Gospels don’t tell us how the disciples imagined God; they tell us only that the disciples were lacking in faith. (Mark 4:40)
Jesus understood God as desiring a loving and trusting relationship with all people. Although Jesus’ image of God is clearly stated in the Gospels, it is still possible to fail to understand his teaching and his actions. The Gospels deserve our careful reading in order that we might not misunderstand them and be found lacking in faith.
The truth of astrophysics or history can be learned second-hand from an expert in the field. The truth about God, however, can be learned only by personal experience. Who is God? God is the one who wishes to treat all people as favored children. We have understood this when we give the evidence of a change of heart. (Mark 4:12)