When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”Matthew 8:1-13
In an earlier devotional, I wrote about the silence of God. Here, we see another theme that runs through the Gospels: the silence of Christ.
Often after performing miracles, Christ instructs the ones he has healed to “tell no one,” to “see that no one knows about it,” to “not let the demons speak, because they knew who he was.”
Why is Christ silent? Commentators have posited a number of different reasons. There was a concern about zealots seeking him out as a military leader. The hatred of the religious leaders could obstruct his work. Crowds might grow too large for his ministry to be effective. Mark 1:45 describes the consequences of a leper proclaiming Christ’s healing ability: Jesus could no longer even enter the town. His movements were restricted, because of the excitement his miracles had created. Or perhaps the motive was simply that, as he said, his kingdom was not of this world. He had no need for earthly glory.
John 7:6-8 suggests another reason. Christ’s followers suggest that he ought to go to Judea, to show his works openly to the world instead of doing it in secret. Christ responds to them saying, “My time has not yet come… The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast, I am not going up to the feast, for my time has not fully come.”
Christ knew that a time was coming when his identity would be revealed – when the curtain of the temple would be torn in two, when the stones would cry out, when an empty tomb would proclaim that truly, he was the son of God. But it was not yet.
Even when Christ stands bound before Pilate, when he has a chance to proclaim his identity, he still is strangely silent. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks, seemingly in earnest for an answer. “You have said it,” is Christ’s reply. Not, “Yes!” Not, “I am, and I will prove it to you!” Just a simple repetition of Pilate’s own words.
Then comes a follow-up question: “What is truth?”
To this, Christ says nothing at all.
The answer to Pilate’s question, this answer he so desperately seeks in his confusion and emptiness, is standing right in front of him. The one who was the way, the truth, and the life. Christ did not give an answer, because he himself was the answer.
Frederich Buechner, in his book Telling the Truth, writes:
A particular truth can be stated in words – that life is better than death and love than hate, that there is a god or not, that light travels faster than sound and cancer can sometimes be cured if you discover it in time. But truth itself is another matter, the truth that Pilate asked for, tired and bored and depressed by his long day. Truth itself cannot be stated. Truth simply is… And in answer to Pilate’s question, Jesus keeps silent, even with his hands tied behind him manages somehow to hold silence out like a terrible gift.
We, all of us, are Pilate in our asking after truth, and when we come to church to ask it, the preacher would do well to answer us also with silence, because the truth and the Gospel are one, and before the Gospel is a word it too like truth is silence – not an ordinary silence, silence as nothing to hear, but silence that makes itself heard, if you listen to it the way Pilate listens to the silence of the man with the split lip.