Notes on the Lectionary with Deacon Lincoln Anderson. Visit the series page at AnglicanCompass.com/NotesOnTheLectionary
And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23–24, ESV)
There are some stories that I am immensely thankful are contained in Scripture, apart from the central narrative about God’s love for us and his redemption of us from the dominion of darkness and death. This week’s Gospel lesson is one example.
Jesus, Peter, James, and John descend from the mountain where the Transfiguration has just taken place to find the rest of the disciples and a crowd arguing with the Pharisees over a boy afflicted by an evil spirit and his father. We aren’t told directly what it is that the Pharisees were arguing with the disciples over, but it seems likely that it had to do with why they were unable to cast out the evil spirit from the boy.
Jesus enters the situation and questions the father about the boy’s ailment and we find out that the boy has been afflicted since he was very young. The spirit is intent on causing harm to the boy, evidenced by its throwing him to fire to burn him or water to drown him. Discouraged by the disciples’ (and likely the Pharisees’) inability to relieve the situation, the father remarks “If you can do anything… help us.”
How often have you felt like this father? Whether with a situation directly impacting us, or being driven to grief because of the plight of a loved one, I think all of us can look to a circumstance where because we felt lost and hopeless we – either consciously or subconsciously – assumed that the situation was beyond prayer.
Sometimes we don’t even pray in response to this feeling of despair, and sometimes when we do it takes the character of the father: “I don’t know that you can do anything, but just in case you can… help me!”
Jesus’ rebuke of this (both his and our) faithless generation is a needed reminder that God is supreme, and there is nothing that he cannot overcome. The father’s response is an equally timely reminder that we need God’s power to even believe what we do believe. Jesus ultimately casts out the unclean spirit, helping the father’s unbelief and doing much more than he expected in his doubt-tinged plea for help.
Notice also the closing lines of the story, the disciples wondering what they did wrong and Jesus telling them that the spirit would only come out through prayer. This is Jesus telling the disciples how to face other spirits and situations like this one – the devils that don’t flee as readily, the ailments that aren’t healed just from an apostle’s shadow passing over someone, the deeper and endemic evils of Rome and future empires which seek to beat the humanity out of their subjects all their lives. The answer is to pray continuously.
There are a number of situations going on in the world which threaten us with despair like the father in this week’s Gospel story. Many of us have family who are impacted by severe illness from the Coronavirus. Others see abnormally severe weather and flooding and fear for the future due to climate change. Still others wonder if our society is really making any progress towards being just.
These and other matters tempt us to feel hopeless and to let belief waver. The Gospel lesson tells us that even these are being overcome by the power of God. Our chief participation in their undoing is prayer, and that prayer may even be while we are performing some work that the Lord has put on our hearts in response to the thing we are asking God to resolve.
The heart of the Collect prayer this week is asking the Holy Spirit to direct and rule our hearts so that we can do the things that please God. How does this relate to miraculous works, or more generally to our intercessions? Please discuss in the comments!