Commentary on Mark 9:14-29
As Jesus comes down the mountain of the Transfiguration with Peter, James and John, they find the rest of the disciples surrounded by a large crowd. They are in a deep argument with some Scribes, the experts on the Jewish law. Jesus wants to know what they are arguing about.
A man comes forward and describes some terrible symptoms his son is experiencing. He had asked Jesus’ disciples to exorcise this demon but they were not able to do so. Reading the passage with contemporary eyes it is possible for us to see in the boy’s symptoms some kind of epilepsy attack. It is understandable that people in those days would see in it some kind of evil possession. A person with epilepsy seems to behave in very bizarre ways and to be in the control of some external power.
“You faithless generation!” Jesus exclaims. He asks that the boy be brought to him. Immediately the boy has another attack, lying writhing on the ground, foaming at the mouth – all typical symptoms of an epileptic attack.
The father says the boy has been like that since birth and then he makes a heart-rending plea, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus’ response is immediate: “If you can! Everything is possible for anyone who has faith.” Jesus does not just help people who ask. They must have a firm trust and confidence in God. We were told earlier that in Nazareth Jesus was able to do very little healing because the people there had no faith or trust in him.
The man comes back with a magnificent response, “I do have faith. Help the little faith I have!” That is the paradox of faith. It is something that we must have in order to come under the power of God and yet it is also something he has to give us first.
This was enough for Jesus. He immediately drove out the force that was afflicting the boy. It involved one more last attack, leaving him lying on the ground like a corpse so that the onlookers thought he was dead. Epileptics can look like that at the end of an attack.
Then Jesus took the boy by the hand and lifted him up. “And he was able to stand.” As often happens in the Gospel, healing and a restoration to wholeness means standing up, sharing in the resurrection, the new life, of Jesus.
Afterwards, when Jesus’ disciples were alone with him, they asked why they could not heal the boy. Jesus tells them that this kind of the problem “can only be driven out by prayer”. Did that mean that they had been trying to heal the boy by their own efforts? Were they beginning to think that the power that had been given them was their own? That they had failed to realise they were just channels of God’s healing power? Jesus spent long hours in prayer before and after his teaching and healing works. We cannot expect to do otherwise.