Text: Mark 9:14-29
Dear friends in Christ,
I’ve never understood why some people think Christianity is simplistic. “It’s for people who want easy answers,” they’ll say. Really? Have these people actually read the Christian scriptures? I don’t think they have. If they had, they would encounter many questions that defy an easy answer– questions such as those which arise out of today’s Gospel text.
When we read this story of Jesus healing a boy possessed by an evil spirit, we’re led to ask questions such as: “how is it that some people are possessed?” Or, “What kind of healing does Jesus offer? What does it mean to truly have faith? What is the role of prayer?” These difficult questions cannot be answered simplistically. Perhaps some Christians offer easy answers, but most of us recognize the complexity. Our Christian scriptures give obvious answers to some of life’s tough questions but make us dig hard for others. And some questions, say the scriptures, we simply won’t be able to answer this side of heaven.
With these thoughts in mind, let us tackle today’s Gospel text, and do so by starting with the very last word – prayer. Jesus said that certain evil spirits could only be driven out by prayer. I find this statement very challenging. To me, it leads to a host of other questions.
First, praying seems like the logical thing for the disciples to be doing in this situation, but apparently they weren’t. Why? What were they doing instead?
We don’t know for sure what techniques the disciples were employing to try and cast out the evil spirit. But there are a couple of clues in the verses here and nearby that suggest some ideas. In the verses which immediately follow this text we’re told that the disciples were found arguing with one another about which of them was the greatest. Jesus caught them in their argument and pointed out how wrong it was. Chances are the disciples had been arguing about this for a while, and such an argument may indicate that the disciples were more concerned about their own personal power than that of God. Jesus had indeed, earlier, given his disciples the authority to cast out demons. This authority accomplished great things. But it may also have gone to their heads. There’s a very good possibility that the disciples were not able to drive out the evil spirit of the boy in today’s text because they were too focused on which of them was going to do it, or who would receive credit.
I sometimes wonder whether today’s Christian Church is less effective in facing evil than it should be because it spends too much time and energy worrying about who’s the greatest, or who has the most authority.
That being said, I also know there are very honest differences among Christians in trying to determine the best ways to carry out Christ’s work today. One issue that comes to mind in reading today’s text is the practice by some of commanding evil spirits to come out. In the text, Jesus simply spoke and the spirit left. “You mute and deaf spirit,” he exclaimed, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” Many Christians have felt that we can and should do the same thing. They say that when we see people who exhibit a negative spirit, or people who seem to listen to unhealthy spirits instead of the Holy Spirit, or people gripped by an addiction or an obsession, that we should command that spirit to leave them. But does this really work? Do we really have that same authority as Jesus did? Or, might we be tempted to use the authority we do have to try and force things to happen? I tend to feel that the commanding we do often exhibits more of a reliance on our own authority than on the Lord’s timing and will. It is God who issues commands. Our job is to pray. Certainly we can stand up to evil. Certainly we can let evil spirits know that we will not be intimidated. But our best technique is to love, and keep calm, and keep faith in God’s desire and ability to heal in His good time.
Another possibility for the failed attempt of the disciples might have been a reliance on programmatic formulas over sincere, heart-felt prayer. Our text tells us that when Jesus arrived on the scene, his disciples were arguing with some scribes. The scribes were the keepers of the religious traditions in Jesus’ day. Certainly they would have had thoughts on how to cast out an evil spirit. Indeed, Jewish writings from the time show that particular readings were prescribed for doing this work. Those desiring to cast out evil were taught to recite the Shema – the great statement of faith from Deuteronomy 6 – as well as Psalms 3 and 91. Could it be that too much focus on the right things to say kept the disciples from offering sincere prayer? They may have used these words more as magic formulas than as appeals to God’s strength and will.
In my humble opinion, Christians today, too, are sometimes led to focus too much on the techniques of prayer and not enough on prayer as the simple expression of faith. Certainly we can all grow in our ability to pray. Those of us who take on the responsibility of leading prayer on the behalf of others should work on our ability to pray thoughtfully and meaningfully. And sometimes we need the help of different prayer techniques in order to keep us attentive in our prayers. But prayers are not more effective if they are said with great elegance. Nor should we ever feel pressure that we must pray a certain way in order to get certain results.
I know the statement of Jesus at the end of today’s text reads as if prayer is a tool, but it’s not. Prayer is an expression of faith. It is our way of appealing to God and His power. We sometimes say that “prayer is powerful” – and that’s fine to say, because it is. But it’s actually more proper to say that God is powerful. Our prayer is only powerful because it appeals to a powerful God.
Christians have always been tempted to go beyond the simple appeal to God and do things that we believe will get better results. The practice of fasting is one such thing that Christians have often done. Many of the early church writers focused on the importance of adding fasting to one’s prayers. In fact, there a number of early manuscripts of today’s text that conclude with Jesus saying; “this kind can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.” As these texts were gathered, however, the evidence showed that the additional word was likely added later, and not originally what Jesus said. Luther famously taught in his catechism that fasting “is indeed fine outward training,” but the essential component for us is faith.
Our text today shows us that faith is the key element which Jesus encourages. As he often did with those he healed, Jesus steered the conversation toward faith. “Please help my child if you can,” said the father. “If I can?!” Jesus replied. “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” We are to believe in a God who cares, who is powerful, and who is merciful. We are to believe that God knows what He’s doing. We are to believe that God loves to hear us speak to Him in prayer, and that good things will come to those who nourish that relationship with Him.
This text from Mark’s Gospel ends by talking about prayer. The disciples ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the evil spirit, and Jesus answers that some can only be driven out by prayer. But when Matthew tells the story of this same healing, he recalls Jesus explaining that it was their lack of faith which was the issue. Matthew must interpret Jesus’ statement about prayer as another way of talking about faith. Indeed, the very act of prayer is an act of faith. Why would someone pray if they did not believe?
Faith is certainly the key ingredient in our prayer. It is arguably the key ingredient in our entire life. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to have faith. The father of the boy in our text voiced a concern that all of us have. “Help my unbelief.” We may believe, as the father also did, but still we have moments of doubt, or moments when our faith falters. Why is it that we continue to worry? Why is it that we question God so often? It is because our faith is often weak.
Though God continues to encourage us to have a strong faith, He does not hold it against us when our faith is weak. Jesus healed the boy in today’s text despite the struggles of the father. So also, Jesus heals us amidst our struggles of faith. We are saved not by the strength of our faith but by the strength of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to pay for our sins, and who was raised to life everlasting in honor and glory. “Everything is possible for the one who believes” – including the ultimate healing—the forgiveness of our sins.
Our God is a God of healing. He can heal our physical wounds and often does so– sometimes through the vocation of medical healers and sometimes just on His own. He can heal our emotional wounds, especially as he teaches us to love one another and forgive one another. He heals our spirits through the forgiveness of our sins, making us whole even in the midst of remaining physical or emotional pain.
At St. Paul’s we are beginning a new program which we are calling “Caring Ministry.” The idea is to organize and maximize our efforts to care for those members or friends who are going through a difficult time. We had considered the possibility of calling the program a “healing ministry,” but thought that this label might be misunderstood by some. It seemed better to make clear that God heals and we care. This is not to minimize the healing effect of our efforts. Our caring certainly can and should help in a person’s process of healing. But we want to make sure we always emphasize God’s work and effort over ours.
The God of the Bible is a God of healing. We see this most clearly in the work of the Son, Jesus Christ, who healed the boy gripped by evil and heals us from the effects of evil we face.
One would think that today’s text of scripture would end with the word “me.” Jesus saying, “this kind can only be cast out by me,” seems to make more sense. But Jesus gives us access to His power through prayer. And the heart of that prayer is faith.
May God continue to strengthen our faith and lead us to pray. In the name of Jesus. Amen.