One of the things which strikes any reflective reader of Mark’s Gospel is the number of times Jesus counsels secrecy about his miracles, whether to the demons (Mark 1:34), whom he will not allow to speak of who he is, or to the leper (1:44) or to the disciples. This has led some modern scholars to argue that it shows Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, that he was, in fact, a miracle-worker, and that it was only after his death that his followers made other claims about him. Such an interpretation is possible only if one ignores other parts of Mark’s Gospel, the whole of St John, and everything St Paul writes; of course, it can be done, but why bother? Nonetheless, something needs explaining here. Mark begins by proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, and his ‘king’ seems bent on hiding the obvious evidence that he is the Messiah; don’t mention the miracles, seems to be the message.
We get at least a partial answer if we look at one occasion when Jesus does not counsel secrecy – the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. The miracle is accomplished, no secrecy is enjoined, and in any event, it would have been impossible as there were so many witnesses. The scribes take exception to Jesus saying “Your sins are forgiven”. From their point of view they are correct – only God could forgive sins, so on their orthodox understanding, Jesus was blaspheming. Jesus’ response gives us a hint as to what is going on when he counsels secrecy. He tells them that doing miracles is easy enough, the hard part is forgiving sins; the miracle is, as it were, a secondary consideration – Jesus is here to forgive us – that is the real proclamation of who He is – the miracles are not the main point of the Good News.
We can see, too, a theme in Mark about how Jesus felt about the priorities held by the religious leaders of his own day. If he is cutting with the Scribes about their attitude towards the healing of the paralytic, then when they seem to care only about whether he will heal a man on the Sabbath, he becomes angry at the hardness of their hearts. There are men who say they follow God’s Law, and who claim to be teachers, whose reaction to someone’s distress is to try to trip up the man who might heal him because he is doing so on the wrong day. He heals the man, and the Pharisees show their real face by going to report him to the ‘Herodians’.
It seems as though what Jesus will not do is to base his authority on ‘signs and wonders’. There were plenty of itinerant healers and exorcists – Jesus is not one of them. His miracles talk of the need for ‘faith’, and trust, which speaks to the existence of a relationship with Him; this is not some impersonal miracle-worker, this is about a personal response to Jesus. It may well have been for that reason that he could do no miracles in his home village – the people there who knew him were not able to have that relationship of faith with him.
We see this most clearly after the Transfiguration. When the father brings his mute son to Jesus, it almost seems as though Jesus is impatient: “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” But if we read with care, we see Jesus and the father kneeling beside the stricken boy, and we see a relationship develop. Jesus asks about the boy’s history, the father’s desire to have Jesus heal his son is palpable, and Jesus says anything is possible if he will trust in him. The father asks for help with his unbelief – and gets it. This is all about trusting in Jesus, not about miracles.
God does not work as we might wish. Why, we might wonder, does He not strike His enemies, why no great voice to us all from the heavens telling everyone He is who He is? Why? For the same reason that He worked with us through Jesus, the suffering servant king. He is love, His ways are not our ways, and we are encouraged to develop a relationship based on love and faith. Our God does not wish to compel us to love Him on command. It is not for nothing that He is called ‘father’ by Jesus. He is love, His love calls Him to redeem us, and to Calvary for us; what, we might ask, does our love for Him drive us to do?