An intriguing aspect of the ministry of Jesus is his reluctance to seek publicity. His claims and deeds pointed to a status that was unique, but he often asked that people keep quiet about it. The parables, which made up a large part of his teaching, are open to a variety of interpretations and they sometimes seem deliberately obscure. Some of them explicitly make the point that God’s work in building his kingdom is a hidden activity – its results can be recognized, but not how they were achieved. When asked directly by his opponents whether he was the Son of God or the Messiah, Jesus does not deny it, but neither does he unequivocally affirm it. His preferred title for himself is “Son of Man”, which although having Messianic associations, is open to a variety of interpretations.
William Wrede suggested that the “Messianic Secret” was an invention of the Gospel writers to explain the absence of any explicit claims by Jesus himself. This has never seemed convincing to me. Others have suggested that Jesus wanted to play his true identity down because of the risk of being misunderstood, or of prematurely provoking a violent reaction. Certainly, contemporary notions of Messiahship, involving the overthrow of Roman rule, were very different from how Jesus understood his ministry, and the claims to divine status that he did make, or imply, were vehemently rejected by those in authority as both ridiculous and blasphemous.
The fact is that every aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry took place in obscurity, from birth to ignominious death as a common criminal. His reluctance to promote himself publicly is consistent with this. In the end, his claims and his ability to teach and heal could not be kept secret, and they led to his crucifixion, but it seems that Jesus wanted to keep them out of the public domain as long as possible. To the end, he refused to call on the crowds who gathered around him for support, and his loyal followers remained few. This is one of the reasons why he alone was executed; he led no others to their deaths.
This hidden character of Jesus’ ministry suggests something important for all those who want to follow him, and something important for everyone who wants to do good in the world. The best things are achieved not in the glare of publicity, but in hidden places. Jesus knew that the work he came to do – which would ultimately change the world and transform the lives of millions – could only be done quietly, without fanfare, and often without recognition except by those immediately involved. This pattern is one we would do well to acknowledge for ourselves.
Our history books are full of heroes. The rich, the popular and the powerful are praised as the movers and shakers of the world. They are the figureheads of social and political movements, leading people and nations because of their personalities and gifts. But they are not the real shapers of history at all. Behind every hero or heroine are the hidden people (or perhaps just the hidden person) who made them what they became. Historical events or social movements that change the life experience of millions of people always have their origins long before their leaders hit the headlines. Theories may subsequently abound as to their causes, but identifying definitely why and how they arose is an impossible task. Take the Reformation, for example, or the Industrial Reformation, or the First World War, or, more recently, the Brexit referendum.
We honour those who work in the glare of publicity. They do important things often in difficult circumstances. But those who want to make the world a better place can take heart from the example of Jesus, and be challenged by it. It is the hidden, unacknowledged acts of kindness and goodness that really make the difference. That is the way the Kingdom of God works. Every small good deed changes the world, and may have more profound consequences than we can imagine.
As we try to understand the world, we should not be misled by claims that the people who have statues in public places or biographies on library shelves have made it what it is. Equally significant, and probably more so, are the people who have long been forgotten and who will never have a memorial. Jesus’ place in history is unique, and the Church acknowledges him as Lord, but this should not obscure the remarkable fact that nothing of what he did and said at the time was publicly acknowledged or celebrated.
Peter Shepherd (February 2018)