The Messianic Secret and Pastoral Aftercare

The next passage in our series on discipleship (more on which here) is on the cross.

As a way into this I began some studying again of the Messianic secret in Mark, one of the themes of which I am frequently asked in our new members group when people read the gospel for the first time.  The silence is so counter-intuitive in a publicity seeking age.  When you are after YouTube views and Facebook likes, why would any Messiah want the leper he has healed not to tell anyone (Mark 1:44).  If you want a religious movement to gain some traction, a healed leper is going to be of some use.  And why repeatedly tell people to be quiet when this seems to have precisely the opposite effect – the more he told them to be quiet the more they spoke (Mark 7:36) – why does Jesus even bother to tell people to be quiet if the effect is to be precisely the opposite.  Nothing makes a secret travel more quickly than telling people it’s a secret.

The Grandaddy of research into the Messianic Secret is the German scholar Wrede. He took Mark 5:43 as his starting point – the seemingly pointless and impossible command of Jesus to Jairus and his family ‘don’t tell anyone your daughter has been raised from the dead.’ Since this was so ridiculously there is clearly something more symbolic and theological, rather than historic (we’ll argue another time with Wrede why symbolic and theological should be in opposition to historical). A key verse was Mark 9:9, Jesus orders the disciples to say nothing about the transfiguration until he has risen from the dead.

For Wrede, and many others, we are in no position to understand Jesus until we have comprehended the cross and resurrection. To proclaim Jesus before this is to perpetuate a distortion – he is the all conquering Messiah without any pain or failure (as the rebuking Peter of Mark 8:32 would have it), or he is another King playing all the games of power (as Pilate wants to hear in Mark 15:3-5). Even more striking is the doctrinally orthodox shrieks of the demons (as a general question, if doctrinal orthodoxy is shrieked, should that always lead one to suspect darker forces at work) – Jesus won’t have truth uttered is the utterer does not comprehend the cross and resurrection. An essential part of truth utterance is the person whose saying it, truth uttered by the demonic is still harmful and must be silenced.

Wrede grouped together a series of features – the command to silence uttered to disciples, demons and those who had been healed; the incomprehensibility of the parables and the disciples failure to understand.  These constituted the Messianic secret, and secret that would only be revealed on a cross.  If the secret got out too early it would be twisted by distortion, the false religion of prosperity, power and magic.  Only when Jesus dies (and it is in his death, possibly even more than his resurrection that he is revealed) and cries his last that the truth is revealed and the centurion concludes this truly was the son of God.

Until we understand the death, failure, vulnerability, rejection, shame and isolation of the cross, we will not understand Jesus, seems to be the message of Mark.  And similarly, it is in silent contemplation of the cross that we learn discipleship with its apparent failure, shame and rejection.

Here’s my issue with Wrede though – the theory doesn’t hold together consistently.  At all.  Jairus and his family have to keep quiet about his daughter, but what about that other daughter, the bleeding woman who is compelled to tell her whole devastating story of loss in front of an agitated and pressing crowd?  And why is the man who was exercised of a legion of demons told to go and tell everyone what God has done for him?  And why no talk of the transfiguration but the 72 are still sent out to proclaims the nearness of the kingdom.  And why is the identity revealed in crucifixion but in the aftermath of resurrection the woman are famously stunned into silence again, famously saying nothing to no-one (Mark 16:8).

Perhaps years of pastoring have alerted me to the second half of Mark 5:43 – “and give her something to eat” (actually Pastoring has little to do with it, it probably owes more to Mark Symmons Roberts’ fabulous meditative poem on this which drew my attention – what food is fit for risen bodies he asks?  Pomegranates and watermelon I seem to recall were two of the options on the menu).  There is something going on here about the spiritual aftercare of Jairus’ daughter.  She is to be embrace the normal rhythms of life again – she will eat.  Somehow her childhood will be diminished, not enhanced, if she is forever cast as the miracle girl.  And Jesus is finely tuned to who people are before attending to miracle aftercare – the woman who bled and was ostracised will be publicly affirmed as much as she was silently excluded, the leper will be restored by the religious system which cast him out, the legion-afflict demoniac will find purpose amongst his family when before they felt only the shame of his derangement.

And why so often silence.  For Jesus something important happens in the dark.  Why so often his pursuit of time alone?  Why the sudden ending, because Mark’s resurrection story has to be completed away from the page.  This is the seed that grows in the soil without anyone knowing about it.  It is by contemplating, not by talking that these healed women and men will come to terms with what is happened to them, and to faith in the God who did it.  We will miss God if we keep wanting to talk about him all the time.  Or rather we will miss the God of all people if we want to continually talk about what he did to to me.  To sense the fullness and bigness, the suffering of God, and yes the resurrection of God, we will have need of a little more silence.