Elisha refusing the gifts of Naaman, Pieter de Grebber (1600-52)
The ‘Markan secret’ is a notable feature of Mark’s Gospel. Whenever Mark recounts a miracle – usually of healing – Jesus almost always tells the beneficiaries to keep it secret. Inevitably they don’t obey him, with the result that great crowds gather. This week’s Gospel provides a perfect example. “See that you say nothing to anyone”, Jesus tells the leper whom he has just healed, “but he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly”.
Why does Jesus do this? Is it just to escape the pressure of being in constant demand? A deeper interpretation lies in the thought that he does not want his mission to be misunderstood. If people have the idea that he is first and foremost a miracle worker, they will fail to get the real message of ‘Good News’.
There are several reasons to resist this. First, raising the hopes of ordinary people that their ailments, diseases and poverty could be a thing of the past, is to give them false hope. No matter how many people Jesus cures, there will always be countless others in need of help. ‘The poor are always with you’ he tells his disciples at another point. He might as easily have said ‘the sick.
Secondly, if people look to Jesus for an end to the problems of sickness and poverty – either personally or politically – this means accepting him on their terms, not God’s. This message chimes in well with the Old Testament lesson for this week. It tells the story of Naaman, ‘a mighty warrior’, who nonetheless suffered from leprosy. He wants a cure, but then is angry when Elisha offers him one. It might be effective, but it’s too simple to mark his elevated status. His attendants rightly remark on how perverse it is to prefer a difficult task when there is an easy way of accomplishing the same thing.
Both lessons reflect something true about all of us. Sometimes we resist the way of the Cross, not because it is too hard, but because it doesn’t fit in with our ideas of how it should be. In short, we think we know our needs, and the means of their satisfaction, better than God does.