Prepare to listen. Prepare to listen to God’s Word and pray: The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:64)
Read Mark 9:14-29
14When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ 17Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ 19He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ 20And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 22It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ 23Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ 25When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ 26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ 29He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’
The focus of this story isn’t the exorcism of the demon (as in Matthew and Luke’s versions), but the less obvious emphasis on belief and unbelief. It means the story also belongs in our world since many of us, who profess to believe in Jesus, can identify with the struggle of belief and unbelief. We understand why the deeply troubled father would question Jesus’ ability to heal. ‘If you are able to do anything,’ he begs, and the if is one of doubt. It’s an if that some of us are no stranger to; we too have questioned and wondered, ‘If you are able to do anything,’ as our circumstances seem to get worse not better and we plunge into despair that anything will ever change.
We hope for understanding, but Jesus seems to respond with a rebuke: ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ To which the father was quick to cry out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
What are we supposed to believe? What did Jesus mean by ‘all things’? Sometimes we take this too literally and presume we’ll get whatever we want if only we believe. I’m not sure this is what Jesus meant and we miss the richness of this story we take this narrow view. There’s more to this story than believing Jesus will do whatever I believe; just as there’s so much more than the healing of a demon possessed boy. To help see the so much more I invite you to read it again with a view to the symbolic meanings.
This is the last exorcism in Mark’s Gospel. It happened near the end of Jesus’ life as he began his final journey to Jerusalem. There, he’d be handed over to the rulers (think ‘evil powers’) who would take control of his life and put him to death on a cross. The similarities to the possessed boy are obvious—a spirit (‘evil powers’) controlled his life just as the rulers controlled Jesus’ life; the boy was helpless, the spirit making him unable to speak, so too Jesus voluntarily became mute, helpless and vulnerable at his trial; and just as the spirit in the boy frequently tried to kill him, so too the evil powers in Jerusalem often tried, and finally succeeded, to kill Jesus. In healing this boy and banishing the evil spirit controlling him, Jesus demonstrated his power to overcome evil, including the evil that would nail him to the cross. The spirit came out of the boy, leaving him for dead; Jesus lifted him up and enabled him to stand, on his own—a wonderful symbol of resurrection and new life.
The story assures belief in Jesus’ already won victory over the evil we see all around us today, an evil that often makes us feel helpless and incapable of speaking and hearing truth. Governments perpetuate anti-Christian practices and we feel helpless to do anything about it. Sexual abuse is practiced by the very leaders who are meant to bring us into the healing presence of God, and we’re afraid to speak up. We’re helpless when a President thinks nothing of lying to maintain his power and control. What can we do? We’re tempted to give into despair, and this, writes Ched Myers is what unbelief is, “the despair, dictated by the dominant powers, that nothing can really change, a despair that renders revolutionary vision and practice impotent” (Myers 2015, p. 255).
How do we get over this? How do we navigate the struggle between unbelief and belief; between fear and hope? The story ends in a seeming anticlimactic fashion. Jesus slips away into the privacy of a house with his disciples. They ask why they couldn’t cast out the demon and Jesus says, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’ Too often we relate this exclusively to casting out demons. But again, if we think symbolically, the ‘demon’ we need to cast out is the impotence of unbelief, of giving into despair and apathy because there’s nothing we can do. How do we overcome this impotency? Only through prayer. In other words, our belief, as Mitzi Minor writes, “in God’s power to overcome evil and God’s willingness to do so” is only possible through prayer. Therefore, “opening oneself to this power through prayer” is the response we’re expected to make to the God revealed in Jesus (Minor 1996, p. 81).
What issues in your life have provoked in you a struggle to believe and beg Jesus with ‘if you can’? In what ways does this story encourage your faith and drive you to prayer for greater openness to God’s work in Jesus?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief. Amen
Go and live obediently in the world as more faithful prayer-ers.