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James 3:13-18; Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 15; Mark 9:14-29


If you read the Gospel of Mark straight through—a revealing exercise, if you have never tried it—you will notice that the disciples of Jesus come across as particularly dense, especially in chapters 8 through 10. They simply don’t “get it.” They are spiritually blind and deaf. “Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” Jesus asks at 8:18. And the next two and a half chapters seem designed to illustrate exactly that. Three times, Jesus speaks of his coming death and resurrection, and each time the disciples respond in an inappropriate, self-preoccupied manner. And each time, as well, Jesus tries, once again, to teach them that following him requires that they let go of their efforts to “save themselves” and begin to serve one another. Today’s reading gives another specimen of their ineptness.

Having told how Jesus commissioned the Twelve to preach and heal and described in a summary report their early successes (see Mark 6:7-12), Mark gives us just this one full story about that healing ministry, today’s gospel reading about the father with demonized boy—and that is a story of a failure, from which Jesus has to rescue them. A distraught father tells Jesus how he brought his demonized boy to the disciples to drive out the demon but they were unable to do so. “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” And he appears to be saying this about his disciples! He also confronts the dad when the poor man asks for help: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus says to him, “If you can! Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then the boy’s father cries out, “I do believe. Help my unbelief!”

So Jesus does it, with a command that expels the unclean spirit and a gesture that raises the boy from what looked like death. When the disciples ask Jesus later, privately, “Why could we not do it?” Jesus says, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

It is pretty clear why Mark includes this episode here. In his picture of the disciples, he dares to portray them with the characteristics that are, no doubt, embodied the Christian community he writes for. That would also include us, if the shoe fits. And the message is loud and clear: if our lives and work are not the liberated and liberating realities that Jesus promised, the fault may be in our failure simply to pray.

And if we wonder how we should pray, the distraught parent supplies what has to be a perfect prayer for most of us, most of the time: “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

By Dennis Hamm

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