Today’s reading is Mark 9:14-29:
And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd about them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw Jesus, were greatly amazed, and ran up to him and greeted him.
And Jesus asked them, “What are you discussing with them?” And one of the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a mute spirit; and wherever 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, and they were not able.”
And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
And they brought the boy to him, and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked the father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”
And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe, help my unbelief!” And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.”
And after 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.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”
It is easy to blame this man for his faithlessness when he says to Christ, “If you can do anything” (italics mine). The irreverence of questioning God’s capabilities may seem atrocious and extreme, but consider further this man’s situation. First, his beloved son has had this severe condition since “childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him.” Surely the father has tried countless times to find a solution, failing each time. Perhaps he has wondered if this is not just the way the boy is, his demon as much a part of him as his eye color. After all, the boy was young when this began, so the father never had the opportunity to get to know his son as anything other than as a possessed and helpless outcast. Second, the father already brought the boy to Jesus’ apostles, who have the power to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, but they were unable to do anything. If they are the second-to-last house on the block, then surely Jesus is the very end of the line when it comes to finding therapeutic options to help this poor boy.
This situation is not at all far-fetched or antiquated. If not you, then surely someone you know has prayed to God in his deepest distress, and not seeing his prayers answered in a way he recognized, has had his faith shaken. The world is teeming with people who have prayed for help losing weight or passing a test, who have prayed for the healing of a sick friend or relative, for a troubled child who keeps getting kicked out of school, or for peace in a warzone, and not seeing their prayers answered, despaired to pray yet again, despaired to beg God for help yet again, for fear this would only confirm what they already feared: perhaps God either is not as powerful as we hoped or is simply ignoring us, being concerned with more important matters than me and my prayers.
Jesus promptly squashes these fears as he resolves this man’s plea. But he can see that first and foremost, before he can turn his attention to the seizing son, he must deal with the spiritual wound of the man who, not unlike the demon-possessed man called Legion, did not walk but ran to him, even with fear and broken faith. “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me,” says Jesus to the father and the crowd. While this response to the man’s request is easy to dismiss as merely a rebuke, careful dissection reveals that it is so much more than just that. Actually, it is the gospel in a nutshell: Jesus tells us that he has come to be with the faithless, to bear the burdens of the faithless; and to invite us to bring others to him even as we are plagued by our own troubles and doubts. Jesus plunges into the muck of humanity, and he uses the father to impart great grace to his son in spite of the father’s imperfections and brokenness: “Bring him to me” (Mk 9:19). This should be a great source of hope and joy for us. Even as we feel rebuked and disciplined by God, the things we think we want or need not being delivered into our laps the first time we pray for them, Jesus wants to use us to usher grace into the lives of others.
Faith in Jesus is the solution to all our problems, even faithlessness itself. After all, he came not to pat the faithful on the back, but to rescue the faithless and despondent. So it should not surprise that scripture gives us a quick and powerful prayer for the restoration of broken faith, the kind of prayer so short and simple that even the most faithless and most despondent ought to be able to utter it, even if it emerges through gritted teeth: “I believe, help my unbelief.” For Jesus, this invitation, born of a tiny kernel of withering faith, is sufficient to solicit a momentous response, delivering grace, blessing, and healing beyond what the father dared to dream. He immediately proceeds to affect his powerful and life-giving work.
The beloved son of the father with little faith seems to die but is resurrected to a state better than he had ever possessed previously. Sandwiched in between the episode of the Transfiguration, after which Jesus alludes to his impending death and resurrection to the utterly befuddled Peter, James, and John (Mk 9:10) and Jesus’ further discussion of his upcoming death and resurrection with the rest of the apostles, who are equally confused (Mk 9:32), this episode is an invitation to all of us, even those of us whose faith wavers regularly, to participate in this death and resurrection, becoming co-heirs to eternal life.
Jane Thomas ’15 lives off-campus and concentrates in evolutionary biology.