By Elizabeth Baumann
A Reading from the Gospel of Mark 9:14-29
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.”
We believe that Jesus was like us in everything except sin. This lesson is one of the best passages for that: here we have an impatient, almost cranky Jesus. He comes down from the mountain to be confronted by a desperate father and a suffering child and a large crowd — and his apparently incompetent disciples. At the end of the lesson he tells them they couldn’t deliver the boy because “that kind only comes out by prayer,” and I wonder what they were trying instead of asking God? No wonder Jesus asks how much longer he’s going to have to put up with these people.
He’s even pretty harsh with the desperate father — not unlike the father in John’s Gospel who he accuses of only believing if he sees, or the Syro-Phoenician woman he at first ignores. Like that woman, this parent has a brilliant response, one which has become a prayer for almost every Christian who’s ever read the words: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
It’s hard to understand these passages where Jesus is something other than kind and gentle. He’s the fullest revelation of the God who is love, and “Love is patient and kind,” right? Yes, but love is also an “unquenchable fire.” To reduce love to meekness and mildness, or what we think meekness and mildness should be, is to amputate it. Love must, to be itself, encompass and crown all the virtues: strength, courage, decisiveness, truth, clarity. Sometimes Jesus called it like it was. And look how people responded: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” “Even the dogs …” They revealed these parents as the people of faith and courage God made them to be. That’s what love does, even when it doesn’t sound nice.
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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The Diocese of Bathurst – The Anglican Church of Australia
Society of Mary, American Region