After curing a leper of his disease, Jesus him not to tell anyone about what had taken place. However, the man was understandably so excited and grateful that he simply couldn’t restrain himself, and he spread the good news of his healing far and wide. As a consequence, so many people wanted to meet Jesus that he wasn’t able to openly enter a town, and he chose instead to stay outside, in deserted places.
This gives rise to certain questions. Why did Jesus insist that the leper not tell anyone about his cure? Why wouldn’t Jesus have wanted to enter a town openly? Why was he trying to maintain such a low profile by staying in the desert? It’s not because Jesus avoiding publicity or running away from responsibility. Instead, Jesus was concerned that people were getting a mistaken idea about who he was and what his ministry was all about.
Of the great numbers of people who were seeking Jesus, many of them were searching for a wonder-worker or a miracle-maker. It could be that they were sick and hoping for a cure, or maybe they just wanted to witness something spectacular or sensational. Others were looking for Jesus because they had heard he was powerful- a person who might be able to advance their cause, whatever it might have been.
And who can blame them? We too look to Jesus to work wonders for us, especially when we’re sick or in trouble, and we certainly ask him to bless our plans and projects. There are legitimate things to pray for, and Jesus invites us to pray for them. And Jesus does indeed work miracles. He did so in gospel times, and he continues to do so today.
However, problems arise when we understand Jesus as nothing more than a wonderworker. For instance, we might be tempted to give him our time and attention only when we needed something- hardly the basis of a loving relationship. And what if the miracles we seek don’t materialize? Does it mean that Jesus is unhappy with us? Is it a sign that Jesus doesn’t care? Does it suggest that God doesn’t exist at all? Or is it a reflection that we don’t have enough faith?
In a sense, it is a matter of faith, because faith in a Jesus who is simply a wonderworker is simply incomplete. Jesus is God’s fullest revelation of himself to us. If we want to know what God is like, we need to look to Jesus. And Jesus reveals God to be far more than just a performer of miracles. The God revealed by Jesus is a God who entered our world in great humility, and who suffered alongside us by dying on a cross.
As Christians, it’s critically important that we understand this. If we don’t appreciate Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, we’ll never fully understand Jesus. And if we don’t understand Jesus, we certainly can’t hope to really understand God. And if we don’t understand God, our whole perception of reality and the meaning of life will be terribly and fundamentally out of whack. This is why Jesus is so concerned that people truly know who he is. And the key to this knowledge is his suffering. In the words of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, "It was not by his miracles, (and) not by his good works that Jesus saved the world, it was by his cross."
The disciples struggled with this, however, as is especially clear in Mark’s gospel, from which today’s reading was taken. Time and time again we hear of Jesus’ frustration over their incomplete and sometimes misguided faith. And of course, we can and do wrestle with the very same issue.
Most of us expect God to be able to perform miracles. After all, he is the almighty creator of heaven and earth, as we profess together whenever we recite the Nicene Creed at Mass. The same was true in Jesus’ day- people expected gods to hurl thunderbolts and things like that. Indeed it’s because Jesus was able to perform miraculous cures that attracted so much interest and attention.
However, nobody really expects God to suffer, and that’s why we can get so confused. Because he is God, we expect Jesus to do certain things and act in a certain way, and when he doesn’t meet our expectations, we can became perplexed and even angry. Yet through his suffering, Jesus transcends the idol we sometimes mistake for the real God.
But why did God in Jesus choose to suffer alongside us? He certainly didn’t have to! God is absolutely free- he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want. We’ll probably never know the whole truth of the matter, this side of heaven. We simply have to accept that the answer is ultimately shrouded in mystery. We do have a few clues, however. We know that God is love. And we know that all of us suffer- it’s part of the human condition. And in a suffering world it would be hard to conceive of God as love, if God himself were aloof or removed from the suffering. If he were, it would be very easy to write him off as uncaring and indifferent.
Indifference and love, however, are complete opposites; they are mutually exclusive ways of thinking and being. Love is never indifferent. On the contrary, love is always concerned; love is always involved. So maybe it was inevitable, then, that Jesus would suffer with us, to express his love for us. As Pope St. Leo the Great once wrote: "There was no other reason for the Son of God to be born, than that he might die on a cross."