If you read the gospel of Mark, Jesus seems to be flying under the radar most of the time. Repeatedly—as he is performing miracles and afterward—Jesus calls for silence about who he is and what he has just done.
It’s clear that Jesus knows who he is and what he is about. The author knows who Jesus is too, and so do we. Even the demons have Jesus rightly pegged.
Curiously though, the people who should know—the disciples, the religious folk, and the Pharisees—can’t quite figure out who Jesus is. So they keep following him. Some do so out of naiveté, some out of curiosity. Others are looking for an angle. Strangely, the gospel of Mark also includes one story in which Jesus does not allow someone to follow him when hewants to (5:18-20). Jesus’ best-kept secret is not fully disclosed until almost the end of the book, when a Roman centurion finally voices what the demons had been saying all along: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).
Scholars of the book of Mark call Jesus’ repeated request for silence the “Messianic Secret.” In Mark’s gospel, this secret is hard to keep—in part because the demons keep naming him for who he is. If Jesus is looking to be a stealthy Savior, the demons are like paparazzi who keep exposing him as the Messiah. It’s hard too because there’s another segment of people who are catching on to Jesus: people who are upfront about their deep needs. Jesus’ secret identity is hard for him to keep because these people keep arousing his compassion.
I used to question Jesus’ (or Mark’s) logic about living out the kingdom this way. Why not boldly announce and proclaim who Jesus is and what he’s about? It seems more honest. Instead, Mark’s gospel reveals a Jesus who is comfortable with ambiguity, who doesn’t need to spell things out for clarity’s sake, and who is perfectly fine with being misunderstood. In fact, the gospel of Mark seems to be written in a way that encourages the curious, the informed, the questioning, and the seeking to keep following Jesus. It is almost as if the book is written so that we’ll have an evolving understanding of and relationship with the Christ we meet in this gospel.
This logic is beginning to make more sense to me—not because of anything I have read in the Bible, but because of how people form relationships.
One of Mark’s strategies in telling his story this way is to remind us that it takes time and some mileage to be a disciple of Jesus. A sturdy, trusting relationship does not develop overnight. Think about a summer camp or a retreat you may have experienced. Perhaps the speakers were gripping and the energy high. And maybe your enthusiasm in that moment was strong. But then, after it was over, daily routine settled in. It’s hard to integrate that kind of intensity into ordinary life.
Could it be that part of the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation is that he comes into the ordinary places in life? In ordinary life, any relationship worth having takes time. It requires “staying power.” The things in which we invest our time and attention tend to grow; the things we neglect or give up on tend to wither. Perhaps the book of Mark is written the way it is to make us stick around a bit, keep reading, keep probing.
The Jesus we meet in Mark’s gospel tells us a lot—but he doesn’t seem to want to tell us everything. Perhaps we need to journey together for a while in order to truly hear what Jesus has to say and understand what he means. Only then can we put some of the pieces together.
Last summer while I was coaching Little League, I learned how important it is for relationships to have time to grow. The father of one of my players was very supportive and helpful, but often kept to himself. Later, I learned that at the end of the season he had asked his wife, “So what does Coach Marc do for a living?” When his wife said, “He’s a minister,” he replied, “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Because you probably wouldn’t have liked him or given him a chance,” she said. “Now how do you feel about him?”
She knew her husband well enough to know that it would have been easy for him to dismiss the possibility of developing a relationship with a minister. His past experiences with Christians, and clergy in particular, would have ruled out any kind of friendship. He just wasn’t ready to go there. Now that a friendship of sorts had taken root, he was stuck between his presuppositions and a relationship that he’d begun to value.
Given this relationship dynamic, there are times when I find myself realizing that the “clergy card” is the last one I wish to play. I am not ashamed of being a Christian or a clergy person, I just know that for many people, either of these terms can conjure up strong defense mechanisms. I’d rather fly under the radar.
It is much more work to live and practice new life and resurrection than it is to talk about it. That’s why the phrase “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words,” attributed to Saint Francis, is one of my favorites.
I’ve come to believe that perhaps this is why Jesus is revealed the way he is in Mark’s gospel: slowly and with some attempts at secrecy. Jesus does not want people to follow him for the miracle of a free lunch or to feed their hunger for a rebellion against Rome. Instead Jesus wants to lead a world-changing revolution of compassion and fairness unlike any other kingdom anyone has seen. He wants people to do what he is doing: to live the reality of the kingdom that has now come. In that kingdom, titles aren’t important—not even Jesus’ own title. What is important is to live in ways that reveal God’s coming into the world.
In order for people to do that, they are going to need time—time because they have their own memories and experiences of religious folk, miracle workers, and would-be messiahs. Mark shows us that discipleship is going to take time.
At times many of us have an inner urgency and impatience that suggests we should be more overt with the words of the gospel. But as I read the book of Mark, I find very little anxiety in Jesus, and I hear a continual invitation to spend time getting to know him more deeply. My hunch is that I would not be as interested if Jesus weren’t flying under the radar. By the time he is fully revealed at the end of the book, I have been with him long enough that the only turning back I can do is to go back to the beginning of the story—a story that starts with baptism—and read it again. That is where Mark begins his story. That’s where ours begins too.
Questions for Discussion
- How do you respond to the Jesus portrayed in the gospel of Mark? Would you have been attracted by Jesus’ unspoken “secret”?
- Why would Jesus be content with ambiguity or even being misunderstood?
- How can our need for certainty obscure the invitational quality of Jesus’ words?
- How does one become a disciple of Jesus? How long does it take?
- What does it look like to “live the reality of the kingdom that has now come”?