REFLECTION: "Let's Muzzle Someone..."
As we enter into the new year, we encounter the Gospel of Mark as our weekday Eucharistic gospel reading from now through the beginning of Lent. Thus, with the exception of a few feast days over the next month and a half, we're going to be reading slowly and carefully through Mark's Gospel.
Today's reading brings us to one of the odd features of Scripture that many believers don't fully understand... in verse 23 of our Gospel - and we're in Mark's first chapter - a demon-possessed man openly professes not only Jesus' earthly identity, but also his eternal nature as the Holy One of God. Jesus immediately responds with a rebuke, "Be quiet!" This is the first of multiple times in Mark's gospel where Jesus silences those who seek to profess his nature. Later this week, we'll hear the story of Jesus healing a leper. And, though telling him a bit more reservedly not to reveal his identity, he still tells the man to keep it under wraps.
Biblical scholars refer to this as "The Messianic Secret", and while they cannot give us the mind of Jesus in the situation, there are some common Biblical and cultural reasons that can help us to understand why Jesus wished to avoid notoriety. Today, I want to focus on the two most prominent reasons.
As a foundation of understanding, let's revisit something we heard in yesterday's Gospel reading: "Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God's Good News." (Mk. 1:14) John the Baptist was languishing in a cell on account of Herod Antipas' concern that John was a threat to him. John, who claimed nothing other than to be a slave - well, more accurately - even less than a slave, was viewed as a threat to Herod's power, precisely because he was able to influence people. He was such a threat, but he was only administering a mikvah-type baptism, typical of Old Testament religious leaders. His mikvah was for the forgiveness of sins, and people were flocking to him that their consciences might be salved by the Jordan's waters. Some people clearly thought he might well be the Messiah, as we hear recounted in Matthew 11:3. Thus, John was a threat. Yet John is never recorded as casting out demons, or performing any other miracles. Imagine the kind of threat that would have caused! There was no logical reason for Jesus to place himself on the radar screen at this point in his ministry, for it was not his time to be more publicly manifest. This harmonizes with Jesus' own words in John 2:4, addressing his mother's request at Cana by pointing out to her that it was 'not his time'.
The Gospel writers give us, therefore, a picture of Jesus as an individual who was aware of his destiny, and knew what needed to be accomplished along the way. As it stood, his healings and preaching were soon enough going to start offending the religious establishment. Once they got their linen undergarments in the proverbial knot over him, it wasn't going to take long for people with real power to start working to undermine Jesus' ministry, and to deliver him, ultimately, to the cross.
The second reason that we can posit as to why Jesus would not wish, specifically a demon, to speak his identity widely, is because names have power. Think about that for a moment. In an earthly sense, you may well recall from a parent or spouse hearing your name pronounced in a specific way, followed by an immediate awareness of what was about to occur. From a spiritual perspective, names also have power. In Luke 9 we hear the apostles expressing concern that some others were casting out demons in Jesus' name. In Acts 2, the authority behind the apostles' practice of baptism is Jesus' name. In the Letter to the Philippians (2:10) we are told that at his name, every knee will bow in heaven and on earth. Names have unmistakable power. Demons confessing Jesus' name and his divine nature would only serve to generate more doubt and to dilute the power of the faithful witnesses who were to come along later, preaching in his name.
So, while it may seem counter-intuitive in our contemporary culture to avoid notoriety when trying to get a message out for public consumption, it was precisely an under-the-radar approach that Jesus wanted to follow for the early portion of his earthly ministry.
Even today, there are right moments to speak Jesus' name... and right ways to do so. Some moments are not opportune for the proclamation of the Gospel, or the power of Christ. I know, I know... that's just as baffling a concept for us as Christians as avoiding publicity is for a movie star, but there are moments when quiet actions without words are the only appropriate ministry of the Gospel.
May God give to us the grace to consistently act in accord with his will, the wisdom to choose our words and our timing to best minister Jesus' truth, compassion, and love to those we encounter day by day.