Rare book rooms and bookstores have the unique ability to tell the story of the peoples and cultures which created the books holding the knowledge they offer. It is as if they carry a wonderful secret. It’s not your typical secret. A secret no one is supposed to know. It is a secret, which if you reach for the book, can be yours. Once you read that book you become a guardian of its knowledge. You’ve been given a choice. I can hold onto this knowledge or I can share it at the right time and place.
You and I are privy to the “Messianic Secret”. That’s simply a fancy way of saying, “we know who Jesus is and what his ultimate reality will look like; to a degree.” This idea of a “secret”,Jesus’ true purpose an intent being hidden from most of the people Jesus encounters is one of the three dominant themes in the gospel of Mark. First, Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God. Second, he’s healing everybody in sight. Third, he’s got this secret about his identity and role as the Messiah. Those first two are easy to grasp. The third, we get but we don’t understand. Why would Jesus want to keep anything secret? Isn’t this the “Good News” we’re talking about? Why is Jesus so reluctant to spread the news about his impending death and resurrection? Doesn’t this run contrary to the idea of evangelism and witnessing? Like Jesus’ early followers, when first presented with this information, we don’t understand this “kind of talk” and were “afraid to ask him” about it. What are we missing? Obviously this plan makes sense to Jesus but runs so contrary to our own ideas of how to do things.
Jesus is aware that the content of his message of disturbing and unsettling. The ideas of death and resurrection aren’t concepts most people are comfortable confronting in their own lives. We are afraid of death. Violent death is drives our modern media. Jesus is talking about his own violent death at the hands of the legal authorities. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to be killed by the police”. That would make me uncomfortable.
When we do speak of death, we do it metaphorically. “He scared me to death!” “You’ll be the death of me!” Jesus’ move to the literal, a description of his own death at the hands of the authorities, confounds and confuses his disciples. Why would anyone be upfront about something so tragic? It’s a human tendency to look beyond such statements. We change the channel. We see this in the way our world confronts suicide and mental illness today. Statements like, “who knew he was so unhappy?” are all too common. Or, “we didn’t realize “that’s what he meant”. It’s much easier to ignore the references to death and move on. We pretend they didn’t occur and hope for the best down the road.
Jesus also knows this part of his message might impede his ministry. He knows about our aversion to confronting the reality of death. It’s possible, Jesus realizes, if people get too focused on “the Messianic secret” they might miss the big picture of the kingdom of God. Hence, you can’t let what’s going to occur at the end of the story dominate the overall message: Jesus is proclaiming God’s new way of doing business with humanity in the here and now. Nothing should get in the way of hearing and seeing the kingdom of God unfolding in the world. This “Messianic Secret” is what will make the unfolding Kingdom of God a permanent reality. The message is about how God is healing and changing lives in village after village. The message is about how God is out of the temple and come down to the dusty roads of the Galilee.
Are we like the finder of a rare book, trying to release knowledge into the world at the right time and place. Is the world ready for the information you’ve acquired? You need to be aware of your audience. If you’re not aware of others, you can’t share your words with anyone. An awareness of the world around you is central; if you want to take the knowledge of the kingdom of God and share it with others.
As the disciples approach Capernaum, they have lost all awareness of others. The world around them has faded out of views. They are arguing amongst themselves. When they are arguing with each other, how aware can they be of anyone else? They can’t. They are wrapped up in their own ideas of power and glory. Heaven is for no one else but them.
The disciples inwardly focused discussion on themselves renders them unable to respond to Jesus. Their own needs have left them unable to respond to Jesus. Have our own needs left us in a place where we’ve been deaf to Jesus’ call?
Jesus uses their argument to make a point about the message not about the secret. In this topsy-turvy kingdom which God is creating what we call first (by this he means given place of honor by virtue of money, power, birth, race) will to become last. And those who have historically been last (and by this he means neglected, forgotten, abused, rejected, humiliated) will be allowed to become first. In order to make this example, he asks a child to come and stand among them.
Small children were considered an economic liability, an extra mouth to feed. They were more likely to develop illness and die. Children had no rights in 1st Century society. Essentially, they were slaves. Jesus wasn’t being “cute” or trying to make a point about children. In this instance, a child was the “least” of these and standing in for all of those who had absolutely nothing.
The least, Jesus says, embody God. If you welcome what you see in the least you’re welcoming the physical and spiritual embodiment of God. This requires an awareness of the world around you and then all of a sudden you realize you are participating in the unfolding kingdom of God. You see God embodied in the most unlikely and unexpected of places. Our challenge is to start looking for God at work. Look outward, be aware, and prepare to be surprised.