Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
August 27, 2023, Words By: Scott Dewey, Image By: Scott Dewey
“Your sister has some very, very exciting news.” It’s a phrase I can count on from my mom, regularly. At any given time, one of my many sisters has very exciting news. (Or hard news.) If my mom hears before me, and she’s been asked not to share yet, it’s as if she’s fighting to hold back an enormous burp. Because Mom can barely help herself, the burp leaks a little. Her eyes sparkle; her mouth twitches. “Well let’s just say….”
Why withhold good news? My sisters have their reasons, and apparently Jesus had his. A few theories:
1. The crowds aren’t ready. They expect a messiah/warrior king with military tactics, while Jesus proclaims—and shows—“Blessed are the meek.”
2. The disciples aren’t ready to tell. They have the impulse, but they’ve not yet undergone the dark passages of soul required for Jesus’s ways—the valley of death. Premature news would be fraught with ego-driven name dropping.
3. Jesus wasn’t yet ready to die. He’s got more to accomplish, and self-proclaimed messiahs are getting killed by political and religious leaders. Jesus is prepared to die, but he carries no death wish—as becomes clear in his Garden of Gethsemane anguish before his execution.
4. Jesus never imagines himself to be a messiah at all. That notion will develop decades later among his ardent followers. “How come it never got talked about back in the day?” people in A.D. 70 might ask. The disciples will reply that their master told them not to tell anyone—and weave that back into written narratives. (German scholar William Wrede’s Messianic Secret theory, 1901.)
So take your pick. For myself, can I just say from experience in hard places, that the Divine apparently doesn’t mind being hidden?
“Tell me Scott, do you see God in Popesti?” A teen boy’s aching eyes searched mine for an honest answer about the hellish institution where he was struggling for survival in Eastern Europe. He made an effort to seek me out and to ask. Stefan planned to take his own life that night, but he wanted a last conversation—a final grasp for connection.*
It was a tough time for the question. In fact, I was losing my own grip on hope—after spending long, intensive time with Stefan and hundreds of others suffering violence and deprivation in his building. I was at an utter loss for an honest answer.
Finally I stammered out, “I don’t know.”
Because I didn’t. The answer frightened me. Given the circumstances and my young friend’s state of mind, it was a tough time for the answer. As soon as I blurted it, I felt I might have made a terrible mistake.
We just looked at each other, at a loss in grief. Stefan reached out for a hug. We held each other and cried for a long time. It was one of the most intimate hours I’ve ever shared with someone—together in our unknowing, present with each other’s experience of the absence of God.
That conversation was twenty years ago, nearly to the day. I recently went back to the building in Popesti, now abandoned. It was a meditative, prayerful time, shared with another longtime friend who grew up there. A padlock is on the rusted door latch; Corneliu placed flowers. We knew we stood on holy ground. “It was horrible,” Corneliu sighed, “like a Nazi concentration camp, for children. I don’t know how we survived. God was with us, I think.” We hugged and cried. Later we laughed. Some really funny things happened in that place when they were kids, now that Cornelius thinks about it. He gets on a roll with the stories.
I’m not sure why Jesus said, “Don’t tell.” All I know is, Love seems not in a rush. She takes her revealings slow.
I’m learning, very slowly over a lifetime, not to be in a rush either. Present to the absence; present to the presence.
And not overly hurried to tell.
*Names have been changed. Stefan struggles mightily with enduring wounds but is alive today.
Discern in wisdom: In your spiritual journey past or present, is there anything better “pondered in your heart”—as the virgin Mary quietly did before giving birth? As Jesus told the disciples to do?
Act in love: As you practice simple presence with people in their—or your—experience of the hiddenness of God, consider being quiet. As you experience of the revealing of God, consider being quiet. In due time, you’ll be able to speak.
About the Author
Scott Dewey is a spiritual director in Denver, USA and Marghita, Romania.