Silence and the Messianic Secret

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Gospel for the First Friday of Advent

Matthew 9:27-31

This open-ended homily was preached by Daniel at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific on Friday December 5, 2014. 

Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus charges his followers several times to keep their lips sealed about his miracles, healings and messianic identity (Mark 8:29-30). In this morning’s Gospel, after healing two blind men by touching their eyes, Jesus sternly orders them, “See that no one knows of this.” And the following verse, which I find both puzzling and comical, describes the healed men immediately disobeying the stern orders of their healer and spreading the news of their healing throughout the region.

In biblical criticism, this motif of Jesus commanding silence, which is mostly in Mark, is known as the Messianic Secret. One of the first scholars to tackle this mystery was the early 20th century German theologian Wilhelm Wrede, who suggested that the “Messianic Secret” was added by Mark in order to account for the fact that many people did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah until after he died. Wrede thought the author of Mark was trying to answer the question, “Why was Jesus not widely recognized as Messiah during his lifetime?” In order to offer an explanation, the author of Mark, Wrede thought, put these commands to secrecy into the mouth of Jesus, thus limiting his popularity and recognition. However, as we see in our Gospel today, Jesus’ commands to secrecy sometimes backfired and news about him spread even more rapidly after he ordered silence. Scholars generally reject Wrede’s theory today and, more than a hundred years later, have still not arrived a consensus regarding the Messianic Secret. So I was hoping we could figure out the answer this morning. That’s not too ambitious, is it? Why do you think Jesus ordered his followers to keep silent about some of his miracles, healings and identity? Why do you think Jesus ordered the two blind men in this Gospel to keep silent?

I personally think there was a practical and very human explanation for Jesus’ command to keep silent.  This last Sunday, I was giving away clean socks to homeless people in Oakland (with Tony Koo). We had to take the socks out of the plastic wrapping and then bundle them up in pairs so that we could distribute them relatively equally to the homeless who would stand in line and receive them. However, when some homeless people saw us preparing the socks they approached us and asked us for some. I knew that if we gave a pair away to one person another twenty people would soon follow and we would be bombarded. I decided to give a pair of socks to one person who was waiting and ask, but I told that person, “Do not tell anyone.”

I think Jesus knew how chaotic and dangerous crowds could become, especially when a celebrity is in town and especially when that celebrity is offering health for the sick, food for the hungry and abundance for the poor. I think he was trying to curb some of the mob madness that broiled around him.

As we move into our time of anointing and healing prayer, however, let us consider another perspective on Jesus’ charge to be silent. Although words can be effective in sharing love and healing and good news, silence can also be effective, sometimes more effective. St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always and use words only when necessary.” Perhaps Jesus was inviting his followers and us to practice healing and love not through words but through silence: through silent prayers, through silent acts of self-giving, through silent contemplation that holds those we care about in gentleness and love.

In the rubrics for the laying on of hands and anointing, the minister is to lay hands upon the person and anoint the person—acts that involve no words—and then to “pray silently.” It is only after the prayerful silence that words are spoken.

“Silence,” according to the Christian mystics, “is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.” So during this time, let us speak to one another, pray for one another, heal one another and even share the good news with one another in God’s first language, in the same language that Jesus ordered his followers to speak, in loving and prayerful silence. Amen.

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