The story in today’s Gospel is often understood as an allegory for the life of the Church. The common allegorical interpretation identifies the boat in the story as representing the institutional Church. The disciples represent the membership of the Church, and the person of Jesus represents the continuing presence of the Risen Lord with the Church community.
In the allegory, the Church is tossed around on stormy seas by persecution from without and faithlessness from within. In those times of trial, the Church is to rely on the calming and sustaining presence of Jesus who promised never to abandon his own.
The allegory is intended to provide a sense of solace in the face of the inevitable challenges that the Church has faced throughout the centuries. In addition to an allegorical interpretation about the Church community, it is possible to interpret the story as addressed to the lives of individual believers.
Augustine of Hippo interpreted this story as a parable about individual faith. Augustine said that there is never a time when Jesus is asleep or inattentive to our needs; rather, there are many occasions on which our faith has fallen asleep and is inattentive to the Savior’s presence. Many common experiences can cause our faith to fall dormant.
Being offended or mistreated can make us feel as if we are being buffeted by a strong wind. Anger can drive us on a chaotic course as if we were being tossed about on a stormy sea. Satisfying our desires for vengeance can threaten to capsize our lives. In these situations, it is not Jesus who has fallen asleep; it is our faith that has fallen asleep and failed to recognize Jesus present with us in our troubles. When faced with uncertainties, trials, or disappointments, we must rouse our faith and acknowledge the redeeming power of the Risen Lord.
Augustine added to his interpretation of the parable by suggesting how our lives can be transformed by rousing our faith to face difficult situations. He pointed out that when we refrain from retaliating against those who threaten or harm us, we invite Jesus’ own peace into our lives. When we resist the temptation to sin, we open ourselves to Divine love. When we rouse our faith to face life’s challenges, we become aware of God’s presence in our lives.
We are, by nature, susceptible to growing weary of doing good, refraining from granting forgiveness, being slow to trust, and forgetting the redeeming presence of Jesus. These experiences do not need to be destructive; these sorts of experiences can be redeemed by re-focusing our attention on God’s love and mercy.
In the Gospel story, the disciples ask one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mk. 4:41) Recent Scripture scholarship has shed light on the nature of this question. It wasn’t the case that the disciples didn’t know Jesus; they had chosen to follow him because they found his teaching inspiring and comforting. Their question was less about his identity and more about his relationship with God. The disciples already knew that Jesus was a great prophet. When he calmed the wind and sea, they began to wonder if he was much more than a prophet. After the Resurrection, they came to understand that Jesus was the redeeming presence of God.
The Gospel tells us to wait in hope for the day when we will participate fully in Jesus’ Resurrection. In the meantime, we have momentary experiences of the promise of Resurrection when we resist temptation, rouse our faith, and acknowledge Jesus’ abiding presence in our lives.