Mark 9:21–29 NRSV
Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It 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.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 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 was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
“How long has this been happening to him?”
The question reveals the nature of God, who cares deeply about human brokenness. It’s not something he needed to know in order to heal the boy. He wanted to know because he cared.
“but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”
We know the man had faith because he brought his son to Jesus’ disciples for help. As we discussed earlier, they failed in their efforts. It’s perhaps an obvious observation, but definitely worth noting here that because of the failure of Jesus’ disciples, the man had lost faith in Jesus. Of all the things one might say to Jesus, it’s hard to imagine speaking these four words: “If you are able . . .”
Don’t you love Jesus’ response?
“If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”
It’s sort of like he’s saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Did you really just question if I was able to cast out this spirit?” Jesus seems to be growing weary of the lack of faith he finds among the race of men. Remember his lament from the previous text? “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This would not be a good thing to hear from the Son of God. I suspect, though, he might say a similar thing to our generation. Sadly, it probably characterizes most generations. The last thing I want to hear Jesus say about me would be this one word: “unbelieving.” The good news is the gospel word Jesus speaks into every person of every generation: “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Faith is the fruit of divine revelation wherein the Holy Spirit works in the human heart to convince one of a reality that could not otherwise be whole heartedly embraced.
The father responds with one of the most classic lines in the New Testament, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
With this prayer, the father gave us the gift of piercing honesty and, if we are honest, we know exactly what he meant. We are all a messy mixture of belief and unbelief, of faith and doubt. It’s all too easy to simply accept this reality and resign ourselves to it. After all, we’re human, right? And Jesus was human. Jesus waits for a generation who will not be content to live out their lives in the lazy place between belief and unbelief. Sure, it’s an unreasonable expectation given the immensity of impossibility constantly surrounding us. Still, he longs to see it in us.
We know what happened next. Jesus cast out the evil spirit and, if that weren’t enough, he raised the boy from the dead immediately following. We need scenes like this emblazoned on our imagination. In fact, this is one of the reasons for reading the Gospels over and over and over again, so these stories will become fused in our memory.
My keen interest, however, is in the exchange between Jesus and his disciples later that day.
When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
So did the disciples forget to pray before they tried casting out the evil spirit? I don’t think so. I’m sure they prayed. They probably prayed in Jesus’ name. I think the problem is the disciples lived in the same place as the boy’s father—somewhere between belief and unbelief. I don’t think Jesus was talking about prayer as a practice or technique here. I think he meant something much larger than a simple act of speaking to God on behalf of people in need. In my humble opinion, when Jesus references prayer here, he’s talking about a totalizing way of life, a way of living in the kind of faith that excludes unbelief. It reminds me of something Henri Nouwen wrote years ago that I’ve never forgotten:
The word “prayer” stands for a radical interruption of the vicious chain of interlocking dependencies leading to violence and war and for an entering into a totally new dwelling place. It points to a new way of speaking, a new way of breathing, a new way of being together, a new way of knowing, yes, a whole new way of living. . . . Prayer is the center of the Christian life. It is the only necessary thing. (Luke 10:42)*
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
*Henri Nouwen, “Prayer and Peacemaking,” The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999), 25.
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