This is the twenty-fourth installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 3, chapter 9: 15-29, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-thirdinstallment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 3: 9:15-29
14 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 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." (NRSV)
As Act 4, Scene 3 opens and Jesus and Peter, James and John literally descend from the mountaintop, Mark makes it clear that there is a figurative descent as well. From the revelation of glory, they come to the nitty-gritty of daily life. Jesus and the others see the rest of the disciples who had remained on the ground arguing with some scribes, with a crowd gathered around them (9:14). This is not strange, but a normal event, and one must suspect that there was a debate concerning religious practice or interpretation of the Torah, as we have seen elsewhere in the Gospel. Something from the glory must remain with Jesus, though, for when the crowd saw him, they left the normal day-to-day attraction of a good argument – how else do cable news networks attract viewers? - and “immediately overcome with awe” they ran to Jesus (9:15). The use of euthus, “immediately,” is a common feature of Mark and a sign, I think, of both its oral origin and, perhaps more significantly, its dramatic structure and character. Mark moves his story forward with cinematic quickness. The divine remains with Jesus, the crowd sees it on him “immediately” and they move to be near him without a second thought. Leave the scribes and disciples – the numinous is near. Mark has Jesus, if you will excuse me, immediately return them to mundane, "What are you arguing about with them?" (9:16) But Mark does not follow this question up; the crowd has no chance to respond to his question or to comment on Jesus’ radiance. Scenes are constantly shifting, moving forward; our vision is turned to someone or something else. The camera keeps moving.
We do not learn the content of the argument or hear the crowd’s response to Jesus; instead, we hear the voice of a man in the crowd, with a more pressing concern: “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 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” (9:17-18). It is possible, of course, that this was the issue that the scribes and Jesus’ disciples were arguing about, but I tend to see the child’s struggles as a concern that initially caught their attention and then they were turned away from it by a dispute with the scribes. Their petty argumentation (and I use the word “petty” aware that the religious matters discussed might be of some significance) lead them to overlook the genuine need in their midst. It is true, though, that the man had asked Jesus’ disciples to cast out the spirit but “they could not do so.” I am suggesting that their incompetence, though, was due to their focus on their own religious arguments and not on the sick child. They passed over the truly significant matter to engage in religious disputation.
It is amazing to consider in all of the Gospels, Mark included, how often those brought to Jesus for healing, of either physical or spiritual illnesses, are children. It is fair to say that Jesus is not pleased with the response of his disciples to the father and child and in 9:19, though he generalizes his criticism to “you faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me,” the disciples themselves must be at the forefront of Jesus’ criticism. The picture begins to appear of disciples in two camps, scribes and those of Jesus, so immersed in their own argumentation, in striking the telling rhetorical blow against their adversaries, that the real enemy cannot be seen: a spirit which torments a child.
Jesus concentrates on the boy who is brought 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” (9:20). From a modern medical perspective, we might be tempted to diagnose this as some sort of seizure disorder, but it is important that we maintain Jesus’ (and Mark’s) understanding of the matter. The illness is caused by a spirit and Jesus takes the time to ask, "How long has this been happening to him?" (9:21). The father tells him that it has been happening “from childhood” (9:21), which in formal descriptions of ancient age ranges begins at age 7, but might be intended simply to assert only that it has happened since he was very young. The father continues to describe the travails of the boy: “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” (9:22). The father begs Jesus, “if you are able,” and the verb for “able” here is a form of dynamai, which also has a sense of “power.” The father is asking, “if you have the power to do it, please heal him!”
Jesus response to the father is a challenge, to the father, the disciples and the whole crowd. He repeats the first phrase from the father, “if you have the power!”, as if to say, why rely on me? And the nature of the challenge becomes clear with the completion of the sentence: “all things can be done for the one who believes” (9:23). This phrase, though, needs some attention. The phrase rendered as “can be done” is a form of the noun dynatos, which is related of course to the verb just used by the father and Jesus. It is hard to bring out the close relationship between the two words in English, “if you have the power to do it? All things can be powerfully done for the one who has faith.” Yes, the last word is better translated as “one who has faith” than “one who believes,” as it is a form of pisteuo, which throughout this Gospel is the essential prerequisite for Jesus’ healings and, indeed, for being his disciple. Jesus can do it, he has the power, the ability, but he demands faith as a response: do you have it?
The father’s reply is dramatically Markan. For the third time in this passage (see also vv. 15 and 20) the word euthus, “immediately,” is used: “Immediately the father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" As earlier, I would translate the father’s cry in this manner: “I have faith (pisteuo), help my lack of faith (apistia).”
The scene rivets the crowd, who begin to run towards Jesus, the man and his son. Jesus acts, and not privately mind you, as Mark has just set the visual scene, by speaking: “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” (9:25). Mark does not present the spirit as going gently into the night, but tormenting the boy one last time: “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,’” (9:26). But the boy was not dead and Jesus lifted him up and the boy stood up. Mark ends the scene here in a way, not giving us a wondrous crowd, a thankful and joyful father, or a boy restored. We must assume all of this, or perhaps a stunned silence, as the audience is taken to a private moment with Jesus and the disciples. It is not a new scene, though, but a dénouement of the scene just experienced. We are left to ponder what has just taken place.
The disciples ask Jesus why they did not “have the power, ”and yes, it is a form of dynamai as used earlier in the scene, in passive voice here, to cast out the spirit which tormented the boy (9:28). Jesus answer is somewhat puzzling, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (9:29). Once again, the English translation hides dynamai: “this sort of spirit cannot be empowered to be cast out unless through prayer.” My translation here is awkward, but it brings out some elements of the Greek a bit more clearly, including dynamai, which is used throughout the passage, and the negative (oudeis) which is used in the Greek, “this cannot be done without prayer.”
Surely, though, the disciples know of the goodness and need for prayer, as Jesus himself as witnessed to them; is he criticizing their attention on the scribes and arguments instead of the real enemy, the forces of sin and evil? Is he instructing them not to be so concerned with the positions of your human adversaries as with your own preparation to confront sin and evil? Prayer not only prepares them personally, it prepares them to help others where it really matters.The real enemy is not our fellow humans, but the spiritual forces which torment us.
John W. Martens
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