- The Explore the Bible lesson for April 14 focuses on Mark 9:14-27.
Surely one of the most engaging stories in Mark’s Gospel, this tale offers Mark the storyteller at his finest. Be slow to break down and analyze this passage. At first, just accept Mark’s invitation to live in the story world and recapture your amazement of Jesus.
Powerless (Mark 9:14-18)
Mark methodically unfolds the story, bringing it to life in vivid detail. Jesus, Peter, James and John came down the mountain where Jesus had been transfigured and came upon an intimidating scene. A great crowd surrounded the nine disciples who had been left behind. The scribes were among the crowd and were engaged in a debate with the disciples.
If this was not enough, the crowd caught sight of Jesus making his way toward the gathering and “was overcome with wonder” and came to greet him (9:14). The epicenter of the crowd’s attention had now moved to him.
Engaging the crowd that now surrounded him, Jesus asked the question, “What are you arguing with them about?” (9:16). At this point in the story, we the readers share the same question. What gave rise to this scene in which Jesus suddenly found himself engaged?
The one who emerged from the crowd to answer was the very one mostly responsible for the scene. Perhaps aware of Jesus’ reputation, this man had sought out Jesus on behalf of his demon-possessed son whose suffering the father explained with heart-breaking detail. Finding only some of Jesus’ disciples, he had asked that they might cast out the demon. A key feature of the story is revealed here: “they could not” (9:18).
The opening scene of the story finds explanation here. In light of their previous commission and experience (3:15), the disciples would have assumed their exorcising powers still were viable. They would have been as surprised at their inability as anyone (see 9:28). The scribes would have taken advantage of this opportunity to call into question not only the message but the master of these impotent disciples. The crowd would have gathered to witness the resolution of this conflict.
Hopeless (Mark 9:19-21)
The disciples were embarrassed and confused; Jesus was exasperated. In this scene of the story, one detects echoes of Exodus 32 when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (Jesus had just come down his own sacred mountain) and himself exasperated found a faithless people. The “unbelieving generation” Jesus discovered (9:19) referred to Jesus’ disciples who had proven themselves unable to sustain their kingdom work in faith when Jesus was absent. The time for failed measures was over, though, when Jesus seized control of the situation, “Bring the boy to me” (9:19).
The dire description of the father about his son’s condition was verified when the evil spirit caught sight of Jesus. Although apparently unfazed by his encounter with the faithless disciples, the demon reacted with a violent display of power over his host at the sight of the Lord. Convulsing, rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth; it is painful to envision this scene as we read; the father lived this scene. This was his son.
At this point, Jesus asked the father a rather strange question: “How long has he been like this?” (9:21). It sounds as though Jesus was a physician who operated an exorcising clinic, and he was attempting to arrive at a diagnosis.
“Just cast out the demon, man! Who cares how long it’s been!” we might exclaim. What is happening here? Jesus’ question, it seems, and the father’s answer highlight the pain and gravity of the situation along with the great compassion of Jesus. This boy was not a project to complete but a person to rescue.
Faithless (Mark 9:22-24)
The father was at his wit’s end. Mark has invited us into the story so powerfully that we can feel the father’s desperation as he watched his son writhing on the ground. The father verbalized that desperation, “If you can do anything…help us” (9:22). His earlier experience with the disciples had apparently undermined his confidence in Jesus’ ability as well.
The subsequent dialogue between Jesus and the father is among the most compelling of exchanges found in all of Scripture. We can envision that Jesus seized the father’s attention from his suffering son, fixed his eyes on the tear-filled eyes of the father and called on the father to embrace trust in the midst of desperation.
As Mark has made clear already in his narration of Jesus’ other healing miracles, the call to faith was to faith in Jesus, not faith in a starry-eyed belief that “everything is going to be OK.” All things are possible to the one who believes, for all things are possible for him in whom one is called to believe.
The father’s response was deeply personal and powerful. He confessed boldly, “I do believe,” but admitted his insufficient faith, “help my unbelief” (9:24). The father accepted his place among the “unbelieving generation” (9:19), but now sought a different kind of help than that which he originally sought (9:22). No doubt, the father’s words rang loud in the ears of the disciples. They continue to ring loud in ours as well.
Faithful (Mark 9:25-27)
Jesus’ attention shifted from the father to the evil spirit. It had owned this boy long enough. The kingdom of God had arrived; no rival kingdoms would be allowed to stand against it.
Even in spite of the entire episode, not everyone there was moved to faith in Jesus. Mark alluded to this fact when he mentioned that some saw the newly liberated boy lying motionless on the ground and concluded, “He’s dead” (9:26). Their assessment was a poor one. The boy was more alive than he had been in a long time.
We cannot miss the closing scene of this episode (9:28-29). The nine disciples, still licking their wounds from their failure, sought a solution for their ineptitude. Jesus pointed them to prayer. In the context of the story, the call to prayer was not a call to a spiritual exercise that unlocked the potential for amazing things, but a call to commune with the one in whom their faith was to rest. Genuine prayer demonstrates that one does believe.
“I do believe. Help my unbelief!” Are you facing your own desperate situation? Have you been struggling in fulfilling what the Lord has called you to do? Might you be facing nothing in particular but just need to reaffirm your commitment to the Lord? Let this be your prayer today, tomorrow and every day.
Jeremy Greer is assistant professor of religion at East Texas Baptist University in Marshall.