After the experience of having Jesus walk up to them in the middle of the Sea of Galilee as they were struggling to row their boat across to the other side, Mark says this about the disciples, “They were completely astonished, because they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). It is an oddly jarring statement – “their hearts were hardened.” And I think Mark means it to be jarring.
Already at this point in their time with Jesus, the disciples have seen so many remarkable acts by Jesus. This verse itself refers to the first multiplication of loaves and fishes. They have seen the most remarkable healings, the many deliverances, most especially the casting out of the legion of demons in Mark 5, the stilling of the storm, just before the drama with the legion. All of this has now been part of the disciples’ experience of Jesus, yet even after all that, the disciples are “completely astonished” by the experience of meeting Jesus in the middle of the lake, walking on water.
Mark doesn’t just pass over the astonishment as understandable, as Jesus himself does not. Yes, maybe in isolation, this walking on water might be “completely astonishing.” But as Mark points out, this event doesn’t take place in isolation. It takes place in a context of an on-going series of astonishing things, as they walk with Jesus. But the disciples have not yet come to expect astonishing things from Jesus. And as Mark will tell us (Mark 16:11 & 13), right down to the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead, the disciples continue not to expect the astonishing from Jesus, and all the gospel writers bear witness to the same.
Mark says that it is because their hearts were “hardened.” Hardened by what? Well, among other possibilities, certainly their hearts were hardened by a lifetime of experience of the broken and fallen world in which death, sickness, sin, and evil always win, a lifetime of experience of powerlessness and impotence in the face of the power of the Fall. They had been trained by repeated experiences of powerlessness the way a path in the woods is hardened by the repeated experience of passing feet beating it into rock-like hardness.
So, Jesus’ astonishing acts of redeeming power – in-breaking kingdom of God power – had not yet broken through their hard-beaten expectations. They continued to expect a world of powerlessness in the face of fallen reality, so that even as in Jesus the redeeming, kingdom of God power unfolded before their eyes, they continued to expect powerlessness in a fallen world.
What about me? What do I expect? If I continue to act on the expectation of powerlessness in a fallen world, will I not likely fail to see, much less fail to enact, the redeeming, kingdom of God power in the world? Is my heart also pounded hard?