The Messianic Secret
Throughout the gospel of Mark, there appear these stories where Jesus will order someone not to tell anybody that he is the Messiah. In today’s lesson, it’s a leper whom Jesus heals of his disease. Leaving Jesus, he is told, “don’t tell anybody about this; just go show yourselves to the priests so they can determine whether or not you are clean.” Of course, the guy goes bounding across the countryside, letting everyone know who it is that did this to him, and Jesus’ fame spreads.
Why? Why would Jesus not want anyone to know that he is the Messiah?
One possibility is that Jesus is kind of a reluctant Messiah. This would be the viewpoint that could emerge out of Jesus Christ Superstar, where Jesus pleading with God to “take this cup away from me” is seen as central in understanding Jesus’ humanity and his aching struggle with the cross he has to bear. This might also be comforting if we are to follow Jesus, if he is somehow made more human and therefore more vulnerable.
Another thought is that Jesus is simply using reverse psychology. “Don’t tell anyone.” Kind of like God telling Adam and Eve “don’t eat that fruit” or any parent telling a child, “Don’t lick that frozen pole.” Jesus is telling the former leper not to tell anyone precisely so that he will tell everyone. This jibes well with the overall view of the gospel, where the disciples and then the seventy are sent out with a command to tell the world about Jesus the Messiah.
That first viewpoint of the reluctant Messiah might somehow draw us closer to Jesus, find him more “relate-able”. This is a distinctly modern interpretation, that somehow Jesus was this normal guy you’d just want to hang out with, share a pitcher of beer and a platter of hot wings. The problem is that, the more human Jesus becomes and the less divine, the less he actually might matter in the grand salvation drama.
So maybe we’re drawn to it because there’s this sense that if Jesus weren’t so perfect, he’d be easier to follow in example. But as Christians, we’re not called to be Jesus; we’re called to be disciples. And they give us ample examples of a flawed nature.
As for the reverse psychology, it appears that Jesus does need to change course because of what those who preach about him say. When Jesus is in Peter’s house and word has spread of his healing gifts, he takes off for other towns. Once the leper has gone around sharing that he has been healed, Jesus moves from the larger towns and sticks to the smaller villages until he heads to Jerusalem. This doesn’t seem to be the original intention, but Jesus adapts.
The point of Jesus, at least in our lesson this morning, telling the leper to go straight to the priests, is that they are the ones who can pronounce him officially clean and therefore able to participate ritually in the communal life.
These are puzzling moments in the text, no doubt. The most likely explanation of all is one of misunderstanding. If those who are healed go around telling that this Jesus is the one who has done it, then those who hear this news are likely to assume Jesus is just one more of an abundance of wandering faith healers who already populate the Galilee. Jesus was much more than that; teaching is central to his ministry, re-evaluating and challenging long-held presumptions about the way that God works in the world and the purpose of the religious life and character.
And in other places, where Jesus would silence demons or tell the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah, the concern there is likely the same, that the assumption of the kind of Messiah he was would be founded on misunderstanding and presupposition. At that time, the Messiah was understood to be a political leader. And while there were political ramifications of Jesus’ ministry, his purpose was not to hold the seat of political power. Around Jesus’ time, there were others, most notably a man named Bar Kochba, who claimed Messianic authority and therefore gathered followers to literally fight for the throne.
Jesus as Messiah bore a different message, which was no less challenging to those in power, but didn’t seek to replace one kind of political authority with his own. Instead, it turned much of the Messianic assumption on its ear; the cross itself points most directly to this, with a crown of thorns on his head and torn robes about his body and the mocking title above him, “King of the Jews.” Jesus’ ministry transformed the meaning of Messiah, embodying the very presence of God, showing us the power of God in weakness, the might of God in vulnerability, the strength of God in quietness.
So we get to this point, and I have to ask the question: so what? So what if Jesus was a misunderstood Messiah? Is our understanding of this great Messianic Secret merely an intellectual enterprise so that we can be sure that we get our doctrines right, that our Messianic recipe has just enough faith healer, teacher, and divinity, with a few spices thrown in for good measure? Is this how we measure up, and is that the purpose it serves?
I have said from this pulpit before, and I will say it again, that the doctrines of the church are important only insofar as they give life to the church and its members. Incarnation is important not because if we believe it it guarantees us a seat in heaven, but because it reminds us that God is at work in Christ and through him we most clearly know the character of the one who calls us into being; therefore, we live out our lives in grateful response. Trinitarian understandings of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are important not because they set us apart philosophical from Unitarians or Jews of Muslims. They matter because they say to us that the very essence of God is intimate community, and so shows us that we, too, do not exist for ourselves alone, but are related to the entirety of God’s creation.
And so the Messianic Secret, to my mind, is not purely an academic exercise to precisely define the nature of Jesus’ Christ-like-ness. Instead, it offers us an important illustration that all of our lives are intertwined in our calling as disciples of Jesus.
We cannot segregate our faith from the rest of who we are. What we believe about God and Christ and humanity will, and must, influence how we engage our work, our studies, our relationships with friends, families, and neighbors, how and what we consume. There is a temptation for us, as people steeped in the language of “separation of church and state” to somehow think that we can segment our religious and spiritual values off from the rest of who we are. But if we proclaim Christ with our mouths and deny him day in and day out with our hands and feet, what good is proclamation?