Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year “B”) - February 12, 2012
WHY DID JESUS COMMAND SECRECY?
[Leviticus 13.1-2, 44-46 [Psalm 32]; 1 Corinthians 10.31-11:1; Mark 1.40-45]
In the Sunday lectionary, the account of Jesus healing a leprous man stands on its own (1.40-45). However, within Mark's narrative, it acts as a hinge story, bringing to a climax Jesus' ministry in Galilee (1.21-45) and serving to introduce several stories that, for the most part, depict Jesus debating with opponents (2.1-3.12).
In Capernaum, Jesus' healings and exorcisms had reached a peak when the whole town congregated at the door to the house where h was staying (1.21-34). This obliged him to withdraw into the wilderness for prayer and the decision to preach in other towns (1.35-39).
After the healing of the leper, what was true of Capernaum had spread to “all of Galilee”: Jesus could not publicly enter any city (1.45). Mention of the leper fulfilling the Mosaic Law by showing himself to the priest prepares the reader/hearer of the gospel for the conflicts about the Law which underlie the five stories in 2.1-3.6, that culminate in the plot to put Jesus to death (3.6). This signal of Jesus' fate so early in the narrative led the German scholar Martin Kähler to describe Mark's Gospel as a "passion narrative with an introduction".
Several elements stand out in the story of the leper: the manner of Jesus' healing, His compliance with the Mosaic and the powerful emotions and gestures mentioned (“begging and kneeling”, “moved with pity, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him”, “sternly warning him”). The text translated “Jesus sent him away at once” has softened the Greek original which means, “Jesus cast him out immediately”.
Mention should be made of the striking contrast between Jesus' injunction to the healed man that he say “nothing to anyone” with his actions—that he “began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word”. Because it is the first of several such unsuccessful attempts by Jesus to silence news about himself in Mark's account, this is sometimes referred to as the Markan ‘messianic secret’ motif.
This secrecy theme is complex and seems, at times, to be contradictory.
Twice Jesus commands demons to be silent about His identity (1.4; 3.2). As well, Jesus three times enjoins silence in a healing context (1.4; 5.3; 7.6). Jesus tells all the disciples to be quiet about his identity as Messiah (8:30) and shortly after bids Peter, James and John to be quiet about what they had seen on the mount of Transfiguration “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9.9).
However, the secrecy motif is absent from several other miracles and, contrary to the pattern, Jesus told the healed demoniac of Gerasa to declare in the Decapolis—Gentile territory—“how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you” (5.19).
It seems that Mark offered a key to resolving the tension between secrecy and openness when he noted that Jesus spoke “quite openly” about his coming passion (8.32). Combined with Jesus' demand for silence about his messiahship two verses earlier, this may be interpreted to mean that one should not speak about Jesus as Messiah without mentioning that he is to fulfil this mission by suffering and dying for others.
By revealing Jesus' divine Sonship the demons sought to deflect him from this destiny. So, too, would focusing on Jesus' miracles without reference to faith's role in healing. Jesus' true mission is hinted at in today's ironic closing verse in which Jesus replaces the leper as the outcast from society (“Jesus could no longer openly go into a town”), foreshadowing the Cross.
What of the man's laudable disregard of Jesus' command? Scholars note that in healing stories found outside the Jesus tradition, those healed were forbidden to tell the means or words used by the miracle worker to heal. The man's conduct in speaking of Jesus told nothing of Jesus' method but represented Mark's belief about the impossibility of Jesus' healings remaining hidden.
Mark's gospel ending echoes this subtly. It closes with the angel of the resurrection urging the women at the tomb to go tell the disciples and Peter that the risen Jesus goes ahead to Galilee where they will see him. But, Mark adds, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16.8).
How then did the good news spread except by its own unstoppable power? Indeed, “for God all things are possible” (10.27).
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