September 6, 2009
Mark 7: 31-37
Christian Brothers, Iona College
Willow Towers, New Rochelle
“He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it” (Mark 7: 36).
In our gospel story tonite, we have one of several examples of Jesus telling people not to talk about his wondrous deeds. This is a feature of Mark’s gospel in particular and has the name “messianic secret”: here’s Jesus healing the sick, expelling demons, feeding thousands, being transfigured before the eyes of his chosen apostles—and not least, announcing the presence of the kingdom of God—and he doesn’t want people to talk about it!
Of course there’s been an abundance of speculation about that. Most often, it seems to me, the answer proposed is that people didn’t understand Jesus’ role as Messiah, so he didn’t want them proclaiming him as the Messiah. For most of the Jews, Messiah was a political role: a liberator and just ruler; for the Romans, he would be a rebel, an insurrectionist—and in the end, that was the charge brought against Jesus before Pontius Pilate, who executed him as “King of the Jews.”
Jesus’ wondrous deeds and his teaching, instead, are signs of God’s desire to love and to heal humanity, to make people whole, to restore a family relationship between God and men. It’s a whole different idea of redemption and restoration, one that even his closest followers were extremely slow to grasp. Hence, lots of caution about publicity.
What kind of salvation Jesus has come to offer us—that relates to our prayer this evening. We begged God to “redeem us, make us [his] children in Christ, give us true freedom, and bring us to the inheritance [he] promised.” The inheritance isn’t any earthly kingdom. True freedom is neither national security nor the agenda of the ACLU; it’s not even physical or mental health. Redemption isn’t economic recovery nor the restoration of our forests, clean water, and clear skies. The inheritance is divine life; true freedom is casting off the chains of sin and practicing virtue without inhibition; redemption is returning to God’s family as “his children in Christ.”
“He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it.”
There’s another way we could view this “messianic secret.” In the 2d half of the 1st century, when Mark wrote his gospel, Christianity was outlawed and Christians were being harassed, exiled, put to death. Later on, when they had collections of sacred writings, those writings were burned when found by the public authorities. Those public authorities, like the Sanhedrin in the Acts of the Apostles (4:18; 5:28), forbade any teaching about Jesus as the Christ (the Messiah), about the coming of the kingdom of God. Those public authorities, both Jewish and imperial, wanted Christianity not only kept a secret but suppressed entirely—as do various regimes and movements today: Communists in China and North Korea, Muslim jihadists, Hindu radicals, militant atheists and secularists in Western society, the ACLU, the abortion industry, the homosexual marriage lobby.
But there’s no suppressing the word of God, no stifling the Good News of the kingdom. The more these oppressors order the Church to shut up and disperse, or to keep our opinion to ourselves—you can believe whatever you want in your heart; just don’t talk about it, don’t let it affect what you do in public life—the more does the word of God spread. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Tertullian wrote early in the 3d century, and it’s still true.
Human ears and human hearts remain open to the truth—indeed, hunger for it; and Christian tongues continue to speak the truth plainly (cf. Mark 7:34-34)—because God created us for truth, which is to say, for himself, as St. Augustine confessed so many centuries ago on the basis of his own experience:
O eternal truth, true love and beloved eternity. You are my God. To you do I sigh day and night. When I first came to know you, you drew me to yourself so that I might see that there were things for me to see…. I sought a way to gain the strength which I needed to enjoy you. But I did not find it until I embraced the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…. He was calling me and saying: I am the way of truth, I am the life. . . .And in his most famous passage, Augustine proclaims to God, “You have created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Book 1). The powers of this world can no more keep Jesus a secret than they can keep us from hungering for the truth, for freedom from evil, for love, for an eternal inheritance.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. . . . You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (Confessions, Book 7, ch. 10, in Liturgy of the Hours 4:1356-57)