The Messianic Secret
Did you ever wonder why Jesus would perform a miracle and then command the person healed and the bystsanders not to tell anyone? Jesus seemed to do this regularly, and it never worked. In today’s Gospel, he cures a mute and deaf man. “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.”
We see this scenario repeated, especially in Mark’s Gospel. Scholars have called this Mark’s messianic secret. Numerous speculations are offered to explain this oddity. One explanation is that Jesus did not want to be confused with a political messiah, which was surely the expectation of some. In contrast, “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).
Another explanation is that Jesus was intent on proclaiming the kingdom of God; it was about the kingdom, not about him.
Or perhaps the secret works like a narrative irony that shows the message simply could not be kept down. Mark, in fact, tells his Gospel with a style that suggests great urgency and power. The good news of Jesus and his kingdom was just exploding. A counter explanation is that this secret explains why many Jews did not end up believing in him.
I personally lean toward the first explanation, though two or even three of these could be true at the same time.
There is one more explanation: Jesus’ full identity and mission was a secret to all, including his disciples. Framing the matter this way gives us some insight into the healing story in todays’ reading, as well as the next one in which a blind man is given sight (8:22-26). The afflictions healed mirror the disciples themselves, who are too often both deaf and blind. Among the four Gospels, the disciples in Mark are particularly clueless. They are found with little to no faith (4:40); they cannot follow Jesus’ teachings (7:18; 9:32); and after the passion prediction, James and John ask for premier seats of glory in his kingdom, which only angered the others, who had not thought of this first (10:35-41). It ultimately takes a pagan centurion to declare at the crucifixion, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).
In both of these healing stories, Jesus takes time to heal, even applying his saliva on the tongue and eyes respectively. This reflects the time and patience Jesus must show to his disciples. In next week’s Gospel reading we will hear Peter’s confession of faith, “You are the Messiah,” (8:29). This happens only after the healings of the deaf and blind men. Still, this insight does not keep them from further blunders.
The messianic secret can be alive and well in our lives. While some religious people may be more generous and moral than nonreligious folk, most are not dramatically so. The sociologist Christian Smith argues that most religious people in effect live a faith he calls “moral therapeutic deism.” It boils down to this: God wants them to be happy and modestly moral; God makes few demands on them; God promises heaven to anyone who is not egregiously evil; and God is not imagined to be actively part of a person’s everyday life. Religious skeptics rightly ask: What real difference in your life does being a Christian make?
“He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’—that is, ‘Be opened!’” We must receive Jesus’ ministry for ourselves, when we are far too deaf and dumb to hear and speak Christ’s authentic mission. “Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly” (8:25). We must allow Jesus to open our own eyes that we may see his kingdom and discern the movements of the Spirit in our hearts. Discipleship is daunting; it is unnerving. But if we call ourselves disciples, we need to follow the Lord, proclaim the Lord, serve the Lord in one another and actively allow the Spirit of the Lord to transform our hearts. The Messiah should be no secret.