Like a lot of Christians, I’ve often found Jesus’ reluctance to talk about himself strange and even unsettling. This is a particular theme in the Gospel of Mark — Jesus seeming to go out of his way to conceal his identity. In moments of doubt, I’ll admit it’s crossed my mind that Jesus’ relatively modest self-descriptions (such as “Son of Man”) could be an indication he would not have claimed for himself the extraordinary status that others later ascribed him.
If Jesus is God, why does he not come out and put it on record? Why begin his ministry telling the demons to swallow what they know (Mark 1:24-25)? Why tell the disciples to hold their tongues when they finally get something right (Mark 8:29-20)? Could it be he was just an exceptionally holy man who never would have countenanced what others later claimed on his behalf?
But the other day, as I was listening to a Christian leader brag up his own credentials (I know, hard to imagine, right?), it suddenly struck me that there is another possible explanation for Jesus’ reticence. Religion, it must be acknowledged, has always produced more than its share of megalomaniacs. A leader (often male) rises to public prominence, riding a wave of personal charisma and extraordinary gifts. He might have humble origins, even start out humble himself. But as his fame grows, so does his appetite for power and acclaim. His qualifications are trumpeted every time he climbs on stage, a reminder of why he should be heard (and of why he takes home the big checks). After a while, it’s no longer entirely clear who his “ministry” is serving — God or simply his personal sense of manifest destiny.
You want a reason to believe that Jesus really was the Messiah, the Son of the Most High? Try this on for size: maybe his failure to latch onto the claim is the strongest evidence for its validity. Instead of doing the things that humans do, blowing his trumpet, staking his claim, making sure he gets his due — or at the very least that he’s not misrepresented — Jesus lets the people around him watch and decide who and what he is.
The truth is, anyone can say anything to make themselves look good. If I want to get a feeling for someone’s core character, I rarely ask them first what they say about themselves. I ask someone who knows them what they have experienced. Neither we, nor the first disciples, are asked to believe that Jesus is the Messiah simply because he says so. When John the Baptist suffers a crisis of faith and sends his followers to ask, “Are you the one who was to come?” Jesus doesn’t reply, “Tell him, ‘Of course of I am.’ ” He says, “Go back and to report to John what you have seen and heard” (Luke 7:18-23). In other words, “Watch, judge for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.” We are asked to believe because those who shared life with him, waking and sleeping by his side, became utterly convinced over time that there could be no other explanation for what they were witnessing. We are asked to believe because we’ve experienced him ourselves.
As a general rule, we should probably all be more suspicious of those who make grand claims for themselves. Such claims are inherently suspect, as they materially benefit those who make them. False prophets and false messiahs are constantly rising in religion, making claims on their own behalf. It’s another thing entirely for a person to do what Jesus has done, expose himself to the public eye without filter or protection. He won’t even let demons or disciples serve on his PR firm, making claims that might bias the viewers or force their hands. He simply invites people to experience him for themselves, and then puts forth the open question, “Now who do you say that I am?”
I know of no one else in history who exhibits such a lack of self-interest, either in life or in death. Jesus declares that what matters most is not what he claims but what he does, and what that doing leads us to understand. He will not seize from me or from anyone else what we will not offer him freely. He simply sets himself before us, submits himself to our gaze, and then waits for our judgment. And this is why I trust him. It is not Jesus’ miraculous powers but precisely his utter humility that witnesses most clearly to the divine.
Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at MudPieGod.com where this first appeared.