And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So 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 his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one 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.” – Mark 9:14-29
Up until now in Mark’s gospel, miracles have showed multi-layered meaning. They show something from the past (fulfilled prophecy of what Messiah would be), but they also show something present (more about Messiah’s presence and work). They also were performed by the disciples and Jesus, apparently without any difficulty. This miracle of healing the demon-possessed boy continues doing both of these things, but the mood changes. Jesus, Peter, James, and John have come down from the Transfiguration after hearing that Jesus is the one to be listened to. This was right after Jesus telling His followers that they will have to take up his or her own cross in order to live in the kingdom of God. Put a little differently, the heat is being turned up for all who would follow Jesus because the heat is being turned up for Him.
There are no more detours north or to the Gentile neighborhoods: they are headed straight up to Jerusalem. Until now it has been relatively easy to follow Jesus, but no more. This is demonstrated in the persistence of the demon’s hold on this boy. In the past unclean spirits came right out of people in Jesus’ name, but this one seems to have them beat. It’s certainly puzzling to the disciples, and probably to most of us, to think about different degrees of demons. Jesus doesn’t have much to say about it though. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
We would think that prayer was always part of any exorcism, so this must mean something more. Perhaps Jesus’ time on the mountain had been a particularly intense kind of prayer that gave Him heightened power on His return. That’s not Mark’s main point though. His main point is the remaining disciples’ powerlessness to get the job done, along with the crowd’s irritation at this failure. “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
Most of the things we attempt seem difficult at the beginning, but over time we get better at them, and what was once hard is now easy. Is the Christian life like that? I don’t think so. It seems that as you learn to walk with Jesus, you get more difficult tasks and go through harder times requiring more courage, persistence, and faith. That’s the story for the disciples here and that’s the story for us. As this journey goes on, more and more difficulties befall them.
Jesus too seems affected by the condition of the people. And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” A combination of the boy’s father’s description of the problem, the disciples’ powerlessness to deal with it, and the crowd’s salacious but faithless interest screams in Jesus’ face that faith is not in operation here. It must have been very painful for Him as this experience confirms in grievous terms that His way is the way of sorrow, the way of the cross.
There is also something else revealed in this miracle. It’s a story of Jesus’ vocation. We find here the grieving love of a Father for his Child, Israel. Israel has been possessed and become hopelessly unclean. It will not be easy for liberation to come about. Return from exile seems unlikely and efforts to liberate this Child seem powerless for a time. But the True Child is revealed. The True Child “was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’” This is not to last, however. He was taken “by the hand and lifted him up, and He arose.” And that’s the gospel!