Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he said to him, “See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” (Mark 1:41-44; from today’s gospel)
Over the many years of leading Bible studies, I have often been asked why Jesus would perform a miracle and then command the person healed and the bystanders not to tell anyone? It is a regular feature in Mark’s gospel – and it never works out. “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad” (Mark 1:45)
In Mark 7:31-37, Jesus 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.” (Mark 7:36) 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 the expectation of some. Another explanation is that Jesus was intent on proclaiming the kingdom of God; it was about the kingdom, not about him. Another offers it is a series of insertions by a later editor attempting to achieve a narrative irony. There are others, speculation all.
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). It might as well have been a secret for the disciples.
In Mark 7 and 8 both healing stories, Jesus takes his time – perhaps reflecting the patience Jesus has with the disciples…and with us. Mark 8 also contains Peter’s confession of faith, “You are the Messiah,” (8:29). Still, this insight does not keep him 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?
As one of my fellow friars quipped: “All believers are in the army of God, but too many of us think we are assigned to the secret service.” 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.