FROM A READING FOR SEPT. 6, 23RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'[Jesus] took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put His fingers into his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue...and said to him, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened...' -- Mark 7:33-35


The "messianic secret" is a big thing in Mark's Gospel.

On eight different occasions throughout his first nine chapters, whenever one of Jesus' fellow Jews addresses Him with a messianic title, He consistently tells them, "Shut up!"

He not only wants them to cease and desist using such titles, He even warns them against telling others that they suspect He could be their longed-for messiah.

In Sunday's Gospel (Mark 7:31-37), for instance, after curing the deaf and mute man, "He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more He ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it."

Though some scholars originally thought this "secret stuff" was a device invented by Jesus' earliest followers to defend their lack of understanding of who He actually was -- i.e., "We knew, but He told us not to tell" -- most modern experts believe it actually goes back to the historical Jesus.

Shh, don't tell
Why wouldn't He want people around him to know what Christians today presume He was? After all, as we hear in our first reading (Isaiah 35:4-7a), Isaiah assures his listeners that when Yahweh eventually comes on earth to "vindicate" His people, "the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then the lame will leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing."

Jesus accomplishes two of these four in Sunday's passage.

But, as we all know, titles can be misleading. During the historical Jesus' day and age, for instance, "messiah" carried much more baggage than the concepts Isaiah mentioned six centuries before.

Among other things, most early first-century-BC Palestinian Jews believed their special savior would be a military figure, riding into Jerusalem one day on horseback to liberate them from the hated Roman occupation. (That seems to be why all the evangelists mention that on Palm Sunday Jesus comes into the city riding a donkey.) If Jesus accepted messianic titles, He would also be accepting the concepts those titles contained.

In a very real sense, He was telling His people that they had to develop a new concept of "messiah." They first had to understand who he was, then take it from there - not vice versa.

The late Scripture scholar Rev. Raymond Brown, SS, once warned the priests of our diocese about criticizing the vast majority of Jews who never recognized -- and still don't recognize -- Jesus as their messiah: "That messiah has yet to come," he said. "Jesus of Nazareth certainly wasn't the person they were expecting."

Beyond titles
The author of James' letter (James 2:1-5) points out the dangers to the community when we relate to certain individuals as "poor" and others as "rich." Such titles stop us from recognizing that God chose both "to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom."

Perhaps that's why we also have to be careful about getting lost in the titles we have for Jesus. The risen Jesus might be our God and Savior, but He is also someone unique in our lives, someone who goes beyond any title.

I presume that married couples will, in public, call each by their proper names, or diminutives of them. They might even refer to a husband or wife as "honey," or "dear." But I also presume that, in moments of intimacy, they will address their spouses with titles they never employ in public that express their unique love for one another.

How do we refer to the risen Jesus when we experience Him in our daily lives? If we just employ His formal "Church" titles, we might not be intimate enough.