In the beginning

Column: Jesus obscures his true identity in Mark’s Gospel

by Father Mike Stubbs

When a doctor starts his or her practice in a new town, a notice will often appear in the local newspaper to introduce the professional to the local population.

That notice will include background details, some indication of the doctor’s expertise and focus. It is useful information. At the same time, it can only give us a hint of what the person is like. In a sense, the same thing happens with Jesus in the Gospels.

In the past couple of Sunday Gospel readings, we have witnessed the dramatic beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus drove out a demon while in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mk 1:29-39, Jesus cures Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever later on that same day. News rapidly spreads about Jesus’ abilities as a healer. That evening, all the sick of the town gather at his door to seek his help. The next day, Jesus leaves town, so that he might visit the other towns and villages of Galilee to continue his work there: “So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.”

Jesus quickly becomes known as a preacher and a healer. At the same time, he is more than just that. Throughout the course of Mark’s Gospel, we constantly face the question of Jesus’ identity. In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, that question reappears in Jesus’ silencing of the demons he has expelled: “He drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him.”

On one hand, we can interpret the silencing of the demons as part of the usual exorcism, which would bind the demons and deprive them of power. One way demons would try to exercise power would be through speaking. At the same time, the Gospel text specifically ties the silencing of the demons to their knowledge of Jesus’ identity: “because they knew him.” As supernatural beings, the demons would have access to Jesus’ identity beyond that of mere mortals, even though they would not build upon that knowledge to acquire faith in Jesus.

Jesus does not want the limited insights of the demons to confuse the people and to lead to unjustified expectations on their part. He knows that there is more to his identity than even the demons can imagine. He knows that his ministry of preaching and healing will eventually culminate in his death on the cross. His identity will be closely tied to his death and resurrection. But at this point, it is impossible for Jesus to explain that. Instead, he cloaks his identity with secrecy.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, we face the question of Jesus’ identity. At the same time, we encounter a cagey Jesus, constantly veiling his identity in secrecy. It is almost as though the Gospel is playing hide-and-go-seek with us.

At the same time, this game has a serious purpose. The Gospel wishes to lead us to faith in Jesus Christ. It wishes us to go beyond a superficial understanding of his identity to a deeper connection with him. That can happen only when we ask the question: Who is Jesus?

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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