When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever 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, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.”
20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus[c] asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 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.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
25 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!” 26 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.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer."
A Symbolic Spirit - Loosing Agency
The spirit that holds the boy hostage has attacked very specific aspects of his humanity, his ability to hear and to speak. Not only are these major functions of interaction for humans, they are symbolic of the battle going on between the kingdom of God and the powers of the world. In this instance, the boy is being held captive by the powers of the world.
The boy’s inability to hear could allude to Jesus’ call at the end of the parable of the sower in chapter four - “Let anyone with ears to hear listen (4:9)!” Symbolically, the boy is unable to hear the words of the good news that Jesus brings into the world. He has lost one way of encountering the kingdom of God.
The boy’s inability to speak has stripped him of his agency. He cannot claim his identity. Literally, he cannot speak for himself. In other healing stories, the demonic seems to create an inability for the possessed to speak for themselves. It is normally the demon or spirit who does the speaking - the unclean spirit in 1:21-28 speaks for the man, and the “legion” of demons in 5:1-20 speak for the man.
We are told by the father that the boy has suffered from this captivity all his. Could it be that the powers of the world have held this person captive, rending them unable to encounter the good news of the kingdom of God and unable to claim there identity?
“I am faithful; help my lack of faithfulness!”
The hinge of this story is “belief.” The Greek word at the root of all the words about believing is pistis, which can be translated as “faith,” “belief,” or “trust.” Our culture trains us to think about belief in an intellectual way. One has to “believe” doctrine, or “believe” in Jesus which alludes to mental assent. This model is not helpful when engaging the symbolic struggle between the kingdom of and powers of the world.
The faith - pistis - that Jesus invites us into is relational. It has more to do with “faithfulness” than it does with mental assent. It’s about our faithfulness in following Jesus, or perhaps Jesus’ faithfulness to us. Through the ups and downs, the moments of faith and doubt, it is the relationship that Jesus is trying to build and sustain. First our relationship with God, then our relationships with one another. This way of knowing re-frames the story.
The healing is about faithfulness and relationship. The disciples are powerless to heal because they do not fully understand the relational nature of the healing. The previous encounter with faithlessness was in Jesus’ home town, 6:1-5, where he is unable to heal, expect for a few. His home town folk did not understand the relational nature of healing, the restoration of the healed one to the community. They only saw the carpenter’s boy, and did not trust that he could heal. So the healing did not occur. The relationship was broken.
Here, the disciples may not trust themselves, or may not understand the relational nature of the healing. Once healed, the boy is able to claim his identity and hear the good news, functions that help him to build his relationship with Jesus and the community.
Jesus tells the disciples, after the healing, that the only way this kind of spirit can be thrown out is through prayer. This is the first mention of prayer in Mark, and Jesus will enter into a lengthy conversation about prayer after he has entered Jerusalem.
Some remarks from Ched Myers are helpful in this moment.
“To pray is to learn to believe in a transformation of a self in the world, which seems, empirically, impossible – as in ‘moving mountains’ (11:23). What is unbelief (faithlessness - my emphasis) but the despair, dictated by the dominant powers, but nothing can really change, a despair that renders revolutionary vision and practice impotent (Myers, 255).”
“Is not prayer the intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus? And has not this demon, so embedded in our imperial culture, not kept us in potent, docile subjects of the status quo ‘since childhood’ (9:21) (Myers, 256)?”
This healing is symbolic for us who are on the way with Jesus. So often it seems that we allow other persons or institutions or entities to claim our identities for us, and we are thus possessed by them. Addiction, a form of possession, steals our identities and holds us captive. The worries of the world drown our the good news of the kingdom of God and we are rendered deaf to its powerful transformation.
We are caught between moments of faithfulness and faithlessness. Being aware of this, and the ability to name it, it the first step to healing and restoring our relationships, first with God, and then with each other.
Note that the result of this healing is a moment of social resurrection - “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand (9:27).” Here, as elsewhere in the Gospel, I have argued that the phrase “lifted up” - the Greek hegero - is better translated as “to be raised.” This shift connects the moments of healing as “being raised” to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus raises this boy to new life, restores him to a life giving relationship. First with Jesus, then with his community and the world.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- How can we help to re-frame “belief” as “faithfulness,” reclaiming its relational nature?
- What holds us captive - keeps us from claiming our identity or hearing the good news of the kingdom of God?
- What helps our faithlessness?
- What builds and sustains our faithfulness?