"I believe; help my unbelief!"
One of my favorite Gospel passages, the story of the demon-possessed boy with the despairing father, is the Gospel reading for today. Excerpted from Loosing the Lion, which I wrote to help preachers and ordinary Christians grasp Mark's stories:
Mark 9:14–29: Monday of Week 7
We now come to one of the most vivid scenes depicted by Mark, the most vivid writer among the evangelists, the healing of a despairing father’s demon-possessed boy. The last exorcism in Mark’s Gospel, it follows on the heels of the Transfiguration in the same way Mark’s Temptation Narrative followed on the heels of the Baptism of Jesus. The story answers Peter, James, and John’s confusion regarding “what the rising from the dead meant” (9:10) as they descend the Mount of Transfiguration.
Jesus and the three disciples encounter a scene of disarray: scribes, the other disciples, and the crowds contending with each other in the wake of a failed exorcism. Jesus takes charge, asking the scribes what the argument is about (9:16). The father of the boy emerges from the crowd to explain to Jesus in detail that his son suffers from possession and that the disciples were unable to exorcise the demon (9:17–18). Jesus then exclaims, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (9:19).
We might think that this is directed toward the disciples, but nowhere else in Mark’s Gospel are the disciples in view when Jesus uses the word “generation” (genea; see 8:12, 8:38, and 13:30). Rather, the crowd’s lack of faith is sapping the power Jesus delegated to his disciples in 6:7–13, where they embarked on a successful mission of exorcism and healing apart from Jesus’s direct presence. Indeed, the father from the crowd later declares his unbelief (9:24), and Jesus will cast out the demon before the crowd arrives (9:25), indicating that their lack of faith has made them outsiders and, thus, unworthy to witness the miracle of exorcism. And when the disciples later ask why they couldn’t cast out the demon, Jesus does not upbraid them for lack of faith, but explains prayer and fasting are necessary (9:29). The disciples cannot exorcise here because of the crowd’s lack of faith, just as Jesus could do no mighty works in Nazareth because of the people’s lack of faith (6:1–6). And so, readings that suggest that the problem is that the disciples’ failure to exorcise the boy involves the absence of Jesus come to grief.
The boy is brought to Jesus, and the demon shakes him as the boy displays classic signs of epilepsy (9:20). Jesus interrogates the father about the boy’s condition, which the father says has been longstanding (9:21) and has caused mortal danger by fire and water on many occasions (9:22).
The exchange between the father and Jesus at this point is simply poignant. The father, like so many in Mark’s Gospel, is at a point of despair but yet hoping against hope in the presence of Jesus: “But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us” (9:22). Jesus’s response is one of both incredulity and encouragement: “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes” (9:23). The father’s following words are some of the most moving and encouraging in all of Scripture: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (9:24).
We see here again that, in Mark’s Gospel, faith need not be pure or perfect, but can be mixed. Like the hemorrhaging woman, whose faith was mixed with fear (5:33–34), the father here has faith enough to call upon Jesus, the object of faith. And so, Jesus performs the exorcism in response to the father’s mixed faith (9:25–26).
But exorcism is rough and tumble. The boy convulses horribly and then appears to be dead: “the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, ‘He is dead’” (9:26). But Jesus then performs a deed betokening eschatological resurrection: “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose” (9:27).
In this exorcism, we see the pattern of death and resurrection concordant with the Markan theology of the Cross. Faith in Jesus does not place one on the straight path to glory. Rather, glory comes after the Cross. In this scene of exorcism, it seems at first as if the father’s faith in Jesus has led to the boy’s demise. One might imagine the boy lying there still for some moments, precipitating the crowd’s belief that he was dead (9:26b). Then, and only then, does Jesus raise him up.
This pattern of apparent death and raising as foreshadowing the eschatological resurrection fits two other scenes in Mark’s Gospel. The first would be early in the Gospel, when Jesus “takes” Peter’s feverish mother-in-law “by the hand” and “raises” her (egeirō) (1:31). The second is the raising of Jairus’s daughter in 5:41: Jesus “takes” the corpse of Jairus’s daughter “by the hand” and commands it to “arise” (egeirō). So too here: Jesus “takes” the corpselike boy “by the hand” and “raises” (egeirō) him too.
In Mark 9:28–29, the scene shifts to a private discussion with the disciples in which they, as insiders, get further information. They ask why they failed to drive out the demon, and Jesus reveals that the issue is not a lack of faith on their part, but rather a matter of technique: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (9:29). Perhaps the disciples hadn’t been fasting or hadn’t encountered this kind of demon before—it’s a demon that made the boy specifically “dumb” (9:17).
Something else is operating here as well: authoritative prayer. Perhaps Jesus means to teach that prayer involves commanding demons directly, just as Jesus will curse the fig tree as a form of prayer (11:14, 20) and will suggest to the disciples that telling a mountain to cast itself into the sea is a form of faithful prayer (11:23–24).
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