When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding…” (Mark 4, NIV)
Jesus has just told the Parable of the Sower. He explains to his disciples that the farmer in the story is sowing the word of God. At this point in the Gospel of Mark, he doesn’t explain to the crowds following him that he, Jesus, is the sower spreading the seed. Jesus, however, does begin to let the disciples in on “the secret of the kingdom.”
When he casts out demons, Jesus forbids the demons from revealing his messianic identity. When he cures a man with leprosy, Jesus commands him, “See that you don’t tell this to anyone.” After he restores a blind man’s sight, Jesus tells the man, “Don’t even go into the village.”
Later, on the road to Caesarea Philippi, he asks the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter, in a flash of insight, answers, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus immediately warns Peter not to tell anyone. In fact, all through the Gospel of Mark, Jesus keeps his messiahship a secret.
Why? According to William Wrede, who published The Messianic Secret in 1901, Jesus did not teach that he was the messiah. Later Christians, who did come to believe in Jesus’ messiahship, were confronted with the problem of why Jesus never proclaimed himself as such. To solve that problem, Wrede argues, Mark re-writes history so that—yes—Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah but kept it a secret from everyone except the disciples, who nevertheless had a hard time accepting Jesus’ teaching.
However, there are problems for Wrede’s theory of the messianic secret. For example, parables are not meant to hide meanings. Parables are meant to be understood by everyone. Wrede misses this point. Moreover, it’s a contradiction for Jesus to want his public acts to be kept secret when those same acts—many miraculous—were bound to be talked about and publicized.
However, the contradiction is understandable. Jesus had good reason to keep his messianic mission a secret. Messiahs cropped up in Judaea rather frequently, and the Romans—just as frequently—killed them. King Herod executed John the Baptist, ostensibly at his step-daughter’s request, actually because he challenged the authority and power of King Herod. Jesus knew that proclaiming the Kingdom of God could get him in trouble with both Jewish and Roman authorities. Even though his ministry brought him fame, most scholars argue that Jesus tried to keep its implications a secret or at least ambiguous.
Not until his arrival in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, greeted by the Hosannas and palm leaves of his followers, did Jesus—by this act—proclaim himself to be the successor of King David, the Messiah and the leader of a revolution against Rome, albeit a non-violent revolution. The Romans got the message. When they crucified Jesus, they posted a titulus on his cross, Rex Iudaeorum, King of the Jews.
All this is relevant to modern day Christians, among whom I number myself. We are asked to decide who this Jesus was. Was he a charlatan, a prophet, or God’s Messiah? In his Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer ends the book by asking the same question:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
~ Richard Russell
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