A desperate father tried to find a cure for his suffering son by every means. He had probably heard rumours of Jesus and his disciples, that they could heal the sick and drive out unclean spirits. However, although he had asked for help from Christ’s disciples, the disciples were not able to set the son free from the dumb/mute unclean spirit.
Christ, with Peter, James and John had just returned from their mountaintop experience the next morning. When they came to the disciples they saw a large crowd gathered around them, consisting largely of Christ’s adversaries the scribes, who were debating with them. The disciples were on the defensive. The disciples had been challenged to heal a poor afflicted boy, and their scribal opponents seized on this failure as an opportunity to deny Christ’s power and mission. What was at stake (as well as the recovery of the boy) was the authority and status of Jesus.
In bringing the boy to His disciples, the father was in fact bringing him to Jesus Himself (note, v.17 ‘I brought him to you’). Therefore, the disciples’ failure seemed to reflect on the Master’s authenticity.
Why wasn’t the child set free from the unclean spirit?
The Lord was not unsettled by this incident. He knew the problem was not that He had insufficient power, but that they were a ‘faithless generation’ v. 19. Jesus said that it was a problem of faith; He said they had no faith, and referred rhetorically to the Scriptures which indicate the faithlessness of the children of Israel (Jer. 2:5). After so many miracles His disciples had not learned to trust or have faith in His power. While His disciples might have failed, He would not.
In answer to the father’s hopelessness, Jesus simply said, ‘Bring him to Me!’. This tone highlighted that He would certainly resolve the issue.
The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ (v. 28). Then Jesus gave them this answer, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.’ (v. 29). This statement meant that the disciples had tried to cast out the unclean spirit without depending on prayer, on the power of God. When the suffering child was brought in, when the father had made the request for help, one wonders, didn’t the disciples even pray? Did they have the audacity to try to help the child with their own power? Could such a thing even be possible though they were disciples/students of Jesus? Shouldn’t they have brought the issue of the child, through prayer, to Christ?
How many times have we prayed as Christian’s, for those who come to us sharing their burden, or for those who we see are suffering from something in their lives? Not often enough. Most of the time, we simply listen to them or comfort them in their pain, but how often do we pray for them and bring their name to Christ? I think in this example the disciples did the same thing. They acknowledged and listened to the father’s concern for his suffering son, but they forgot to pray for him. We must not be careless as Christians, since prayer defines who we are. Prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit, an organ of the soul, we must not underestimate it.
When we go back and re-read this gospel book, we can see examples of situations, where the disciples lacked faith and tried to solve social issues according to their own feeble human wisdom. In Mark there are two miracle feeding stories which go a long way toward illustrating the deficiencies of the disciples (cf. Mk. 9: 32). The first episode occurred where in utter disbelief the disciples watch Jesus feed the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish (Mk. 6:30-44), then soon after this event Jesus approached the disciples while walking on water (6:49). The second episode was when Jesus fed the crowd with 7 loaves and a few fish (8:1-10). In all three events, the disciples simply could not get past themselves and see God at work. They could not overcome their lack of faith and doubt and trust that with God all things are possible.
It is true that they demonstrated a lack of faith, fear, doubt, and understanding. But they also were faithful, dedicated, and persistent followers of God. They remained there with Him by His side and did not give up. As a result, the disciples are also a model of faith because they are truly human. They oscillate between faith and doubt just like us. If the disciples who spent every moment of everyday with Jesus and still had doubts, then perhaps we should give ourselves more grace when we struggle with doubt and fear. If the disciples had their good and bad moments, up and down faith, then maybe this is just how it goes. Perhaps Mark is trying to paint a realistic picture of what following Christ is like: moments of trust, grace, and enlightenment and periods of confusion, doubt, and fear.
If no one in the Gospel stories ever gets Who Jesus is or what his mission is all about, it is then up to us, the reader, to realise Who Jesus Is.
Unfortunately, there was not a single person there seeking in earnest prayer for God’s mercy on behalf of the father and son. It wasn’t just the disciples who were in debate to preserve their own standing. The scribes of the law were the same as well, in their provoking the debate, taking the fact that the child wasn’t healed as grounds for attack. The crowd was the same as well in their surrounding them on the outside and gazing at the debate between the disciples and the scribes of the law. Nobody deeply cared about the suffering of the father and the son. There was no one there to seek God’s mercy in prayer on their behalf, to believe that God would show compassion on them.
This was the picture and situation Jesus was presented with. Therefore, the Lord sighed and said, ‘O faithless generation … ’ (V. 20). If “faith” on the one hand is unwavering conviction and confidence, the disciples had that to the core. They were thinking they could set the child free. They didn’t have a doubt. Or, on the other hand, if “faith” has the same meaning as piety and devotedness, then the scribes of the law could claim they were deep in faith because they were God fearing and devout. But, Jesus looked upon both their condition and sighed over it. “The faith” which Jesus was looking for in them was not that type of thing.
What kind of faith does the Lord expect of us, especially when we meet challenges and difficulties?
The people brought the son to Jesus. Whereupon, he had a convulsion, fell to the ground, turned over and over, round and round, and spewed forth froth. When the Lord asked about the child, ‘The father said, ‘[A spirit] has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us’ (v. 22 ). Jesus said to the father are you saying, ‘If it is possible [for me]?’ (v. 23); ‘All things are possible to him who believes’ (v.23). The father immediately cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ (v.24). This indicates that the issue was not whether Jesus can heal; it was rather whether the father could have faith – ‘for all things are possible to him who believes’ (v.23). Unpretentious/meek faith in Jesus is the answer and the key to the boy’s healing.‘I believe; help my unbelief’ (v.24) also indicates that besides the sins we know of, there is also another category of sins unknown to people, the so-called sins of lacking: the good that you can do but you don’t do.
The boy’s father was desperate. He knew and deplored the weakness of his faith, but still reached out to Jesus as his only hope. The doubt of the father was not a rejection of Jesus’ power, but a frantic seeking after a certainty which eluded him. Jesus drew out from the mouth of the boy’s father, stricken with powerlessness, this unpretentious cry from deep within his soul.
This was the same cry from deep within the soul that Saint John Climacus gave as a spiritual father, for the world. For this reason we commemorate him on the fourth Sunday of Lent and chant his apolytikion which proclaims him as a model of prayer, from which Christians can learn from:
Glory. For the Saint.
Mode pl. 4.
Ταῖς τῶν δακρύων σου ροαῖς, τῆς
ἐρήμου τὸ ἄγονον ἐγεώργησας, καὶ
τοῖς ἐκ βάθους στεναγμοῖς, εἰς ἑκα‐
τὸν τοὺς πόνους ἐκαρποφόρησας∙
καὶ γέγονας φωστήρ, τῇ οἰκουμένῃ
λάμπων τοῖς θαύμασιν, Ἰωάννη
πατὴρ ἡμῶν ὅσιε∙ πρέσβευε Χριστῷ
τῷ Θεῷ, σωθῆναι τὰς ψυχὰς ἡμῶν.
Translation: With the rivers of your tears you made the barren desert bloom; and with your sighs from deep within, you made your labours bear their fruits a hundredfold; and you became a star, illuminating the world by your miracles, O John, our devout father. Intercede with Christ our God, for the salvation of our souls.
In light of St John Climacus’ humble witness as one truly devout, we can begin to approach the meaning of the father’s desperate plea to Christ. What the father said was the humble self-contradictory incoherent cry of ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ v.24. All the father could do was to say that and to cry out his request like a solitary monk, and the Lord would accept what faith he had and pardon his weakness. There was nothing the father could do on his own; his son was suffering, but there was nothing to be done for him but to cry to God.
‘I believe; help my unbelief’ v.24; having said that, he threw himself before Jesus Christ. He threw himself so powerless, so even unable to believe, before the Christ. Then Jesus simply with His Word commanded the unclean spirit to come out, ‘and never enter him again’ v. 25). The possessed boy was merely convulsed, while the usurping spirit was being convicted by the awesome judge. The captive was detained, but the captor was punished. Through the wrenching of the human body, the punishment of the devil was made manifest v.26. The disciples might have failed, but this was the Master Himself speaking to the unclean spirit now.
The differences between the broken father, the disciples of Jesus, and the scribes of the law now become clear? When Jesus heard the father’s poor spirit, that self-contradictory incoherent cry and “the faith” that said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ v.24, he set the child free from the unclean spirit. In a world where Jesus had said, ‘All things are possible to him who believes’ (v.23), this then, was the attitude that was opened, endorsed, and taught by Jesus. This is the faith for which Jesus was looking for, to pray with a poor spirit, boldly and with expectant faith.
Elder Joseph the Hesychast said: ‘Question yourself as to whether this faith is within you, or perhaps you are led by worldly wisdom. And if you leave all things in the hands of God, behold! You have acquired faith and undoubtedly, without any question, you will find God to be your helper’ (p 116. Precious Vessels). Prayer and faith go together, where faith fails, prayer perishes; for who prays for that in which he/she does not believe?
So then in order that we may pray, let us believe, and let us pray that this same faith by which we pray may not falter. The Lord gives us His Holy Spirit that we may have the confidence and boldness we need to ask our heavenly Father for His help and grace. Do you trust in God’s love and care for you, and pray with expectant faith that He will give you what you need?
Our problem is not that we may have thoughts where we are not so sure about our faith within our hearts. Standing as a believer, with hardly any confidence in ourselves, we do not need to worry one bit. What Jesus wants is, not that we puff out our chests and say ‘I believe perfectly’. Rather, our problem is that we are to become people who admit our own powerlessness, admit our weaknesses, admit that we are worn out, and look to God steadfastly from there. We are to become people who admit that we must have Jesus to save us. We are to become people who admit honestly that we cannot even believe at times the God who is saving us. We are to become people who earnestly seek to and cling for the mercy of the Lord, not just with our mouth but with our heart, with courage. Then the Lord will grant us faith – like that father who cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ v.24 – and with this humble approach, He will reveal His action which is best for us.
God promises us freedom from oppression, especially the oppression of disorientation and evil that rob us of faith, joy, and peace with God. The Lord invites us, as he did this boy’s father, to pray with expectant faith. Without trust/faith it is hard to muster the courage to leap from the known to the unknown mystery of God revealed to those with faith, no matter the cost. It seems essential to develop some technique of inward looking—some way of connecting with that aspect of the self lying beyond the intellect’s horizon. The key to this is the ability to be focused and receptive.
Do you trust in God’s unfailing love and mercy?
Through His mighty works and signs, Jesus demonstrated that the kingdom of God is present in Him. These signs attest that the Father has sent Him as the promised Messiah. They invite belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Saviour of the world. The coming of God’s kingdom means defeat of Satan’s kingdom. Jesus’ exorcisms anticipate his great victory over “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). While Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and may cause grave injuries of a spiritual nature, and indirectly even of a physical nature, his power is nonetheless limited and permitted by divine providence (Rom 8:28). Jesus offers freedom from bondage to sin and Satan (anything that takes us from the path towards Him). There is no affliction He cannot deliver us from.
Do you make full use of the protection and help He offers to those who seek Him with faith and trust in his mercy?
We live in a world where relativism and scientism dominate and easily weaken our commitment to the Full Truth of the Gospel. We need spiritual companionship and nurturing to combat the forces that surround us. For this reason we must Come to Church and explore the healing nature of our Orthodox Christian Faith that leads us to union with God.