The Secret Jesus

The ironical evangelist Mark once again says one thing while seeming to say the opposite 2014 a sermon for Proper 18b.

Proper 18b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The longest running musical in theater history is a little play called The Fantasticks. It ran for forty-two years in its original Off-Broadway run in New York, and it has been revived and performed in other venues thousands of times since. In it, two fathers hatch a plot to get their children to do what they want them to do. That in itself is not so unusual; parents have been trying to get their children to act as they want — often without success — from the days of Cain and Abel. What is unusual lies in how these two fathers plot to accomplish their scheme. For they realize they stand the best chance of success by telling their children to do the opposite of what they want them to do.

The wisdom of their plan is based on their observation that children often do the opposite of what is asked of them. In one of the show’s songs, “Never Say No,” they document, among other things, that children put beans in their ears precisely because they are told not to beans in their ears. So the crafty fathers realize they can put this contrariness to work, as they also sing, “Your daughter brings a young man in, / says, ‘Do you like him, Pa?’ / Just say that he’s a fool / and then you’ve got a son-in-law!” And so they plot to get their children to fall in love by telling them that they must never, never, see or speak with each other.

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In today’s Gospel, there are three references to Jesus trying to keep a secret — or so it seems. Remember, once again, that this is the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the four Gospels, so if something is repeated three times in one short section you can be sure that the economical Mark wants us to take note of it! At the beginning of the passage Mark tells us that Jesus entered a house but did not want anyone to know that he was there. Then, after healing the child of the Gentile woman — again seeming to be reluctant to do so, but being persuaded by her insistence — he then travels out of the way into Gentile territory, and then is greeted by people who bring him a deaf man. In keeping with this theme of secrecy, rather than healing the man in their sight, Jesus once more takes him aside and works this healing miracle in private. And finally, after healing the man, Jesus orders the people to tell no one about the miracle.

The irony in all of this — and we can be sure that this is Mark’s point, because, after all, he brings it up three times — is stated clearly: “the more Jesus ordered them to keep silent, the more zealously they spread the word.” So, the question before us is, Did Jesus really want his presence to be kept secret, or was he, like the savvy fathers in The Fantasticks, relying on human nature to spread the word of his presence even as he kept telling them to keep his presence mum?

As I said a few weeks ago about Jesus’ claim to be the bread from heaven, we do not have many options here. But just consider this: Jesus did understand human nature better than any other human being who has ever walked this earth. So he must have known the simple truth that the fathers in that musical knew — that people will act contrary to instructions given them. And after all, as the Son of God he had witnessed the long history of his chosen people disobeying his Father in heaven!

Jesus surely also knew that the things he did would be perceived as fulfillment of those ancient prophecies about the coming of Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man — and once perceived as such, the word would spread like wildfire. And here he is, fulfilling a prophecy such as we heard this morning in Isaiah, a prophecy fulfilled in this Gospel passage, as a man who cannot hear or speak clearly is freed from these impediments, his ears unstopped and his tongue untied. And in this act, though Jesus tells the people to keep quiet about it, we can be sure he meant the story to be told.

And why is that? Because this is not a healing of someone lame, or disabled, or blind. It is the healing of a man who could not speak. Why would Jesus untie someone’s tongue only to tell him and the crowd to keep silent? Why open his ears if not to fill them with the good news that he can then tell forth with his newly liberated tongue? Why come to this earth at all, incarnate as the Lord, as the Messiah long awaited, the Son of God and Son of Man, robed in flesh, our Great High Priest, if not to call all people to himself, and save them as they put their trust in him? Why keep secret the best news ever heard?

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And it seems to me that the answer to this is in fact the wisdom of Jesus to know that the word would be best spread by telling people not to spread it. He knew our failings — that we cannot keep good news from spreading; and, lets face it, nothing travels like gossip, either! People really just can’t manage to mind their tongues, so at least Jesus gives them something good to wag their tongues about — the Good News that salvation has come, that the day long promised by Isaiah and all of the prophets is upon us: “Be strong; do not fear. Here is your God, who has come to save you!” If even the dogs are going to be fed, how much more the children God that has called and adopted to be his own, through the coming of that very Son of God who is our brother, who through his brotherhood with us makes us children of his Father in heaven.

This is good news, my friends, and woe betide me if I were to tell you to keep it to yourselves, even if I thought that meant you would spread it more effectively. Rather let me say to those encouraging words: to spread the word — to tell it forth in the streets and the offices, in the shops and on the sidewalks of this great but terrible city, by the hospital bed of the dying and in the nursery where new life comes to birth. Publish, my friends, publish glad tidings of redemption and release, as our untied tongues proclaim the praise of the One who has freed us from our bondage to death, and brought us into his marvelous light, even Jesus Christ our Lord.