When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” “O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
When reading the narratives of Jesus’s life upon this earth, we would do well to stop, pause and set the scene. Of the four Gospels, I believe Mark does the best job of setting the tone and intensity that was the hallmark of Christ’s ministry. For instance, within his gospel there are numerous mentions of the eye gaze of Jesus–we note that he often looks directly at people. Mark frequently points out the inner emotions of Jesus:
and he [Jesus] looked at him and loved him.
~Mark 10:21 (Jesus’s reaction to the rich young ruler)
By this time in Christ’s ministry, the crowds were overwhelming and doggedly followed him everywhere. Jesus had just come off the mountain where he had intense discussions with His heavenly father, Moses, and Elijah, and is now walking towards a crowd that seems to be arguing with the disciples. As Jesus approaches, we’re told that the crowd immediately sees him and runs (as in stampedes) to him, and Jesus asked them what they were arguing about. When the father of the boy spoke from among the crowd and told him of the discouraging sequence of events, Jesus laments out loud and says, “Oh unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
WHOA! What is Jesus saying? Did we hear him correctly? Shouldn’t Jesus be “happy go lucky” and light-hearted? Is this any way to address a group that has been following you? Is Jesus giving up?
I love what William Barclay says about this assertion of Jesus:
This passage begins with a cry wrung from the heart of Jesus. He had been on the mountain top and had faced the tremendous task that lay ahead of him. He had decided to stake his life on the redemption of the world. And now he had come back down to find his nearest followers, his own chosen men, beaten and baffled and helpless and ineffective. The thing, for the moment, must have daunted even Jesus. He must have had a sudden realization of what anyone else would have called the hopelessness of his task. He must at that moment have almost despaired of the attempt to change human nature and to make men of the world into men of God.
I still remember the first time this passage grabbed my heart. I was a young man, and sat there stunned and introspective. Are you talking to me? I thought. Has my preoccupation with everything else in my life reached the heavens–shouting my indifference? Has my apathy been detected? The seriousness of my calling overwhelmed me, and I could only apologize and ask God to help me be more attentive and willing to be faithful.
We are then told that as the boy approached Jesus, the spirit threw him to the ground, where he rolled about and foamed at the mouth. What must it have been like watching this this horrifying scene? We can sense Jesus’s attention and focus as he asked the father how long that had been going on? He answered, “From childhood, it has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.” Then in parental fear and desperation, the father blurts out, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
NOW, about this statement by the father. I truly believe that an injustice has been done to this man over the years as this request has been held up as an object lesson of “how NOT to pray!” Preacher after teacher has taught this passage, glossing over the grief of the parents, let alone the intense suffering of the precious son, only to point out the father’s phrase “If you can do anything.” This fateful utterance has painted this man to be somewhere between a skeptic and cynic!
Think of your own child or someone you know. Now imagine this horrific condition at your home, for many years! This entire family was in a state of misery. Do you suspect that these parents didn’t pray constantly for their son’s relief? Every time the evil spirit threw the boy into fire or water to kill him, do you doubt that they themselves died a thousand deaths? There was no relief and no reason for their suffering … yet they waited, twisting in emotional torment. Finally hearing of “the Jesus,” they took him to the disciples who had been doing miracles, but to their great disappointment, no results! Upon Jesus’s return they pushed through the crowds and spoke to Jesus directly. In the Greek text, with its tenses, the father first acknowledges the Lord’s compassion, so it would better read:
Knowing that Jesus had compassion for them, he said, “If you have the power, please help us now.”
Jesus didn’t waste a second, but came back with a “play on words” that is difficult to explain in the English.
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
When Jesus replied, there’s an article in front of the phrase “if you can” and it is as if Jesus was saying, “as far as your question, if I can?–Are you ready? … If you can, I can” or “If you can, all things can be!” In other words, Jesus puts over against the “anything” of the father, the “all things” of the Son of God.
We need to understand that the man had faith or he wouldn’t have been there in the first place. He had already dealt with the disciples for some time with a negative result, and in his desperate angst he cried out to Jesus, “Well, if you can …” Given the circumstance, Jesus didn’t lecture this man, but rather used a play on words that gently pointed out the man’s need to return to his original “faith” and that things would be all right. In this way, Jesus was both reassuring and helping the man with correct theology all at the same time. God IS NOT looking for us to FALL…He is waiting for us to STAND and trust!
We then note that the father immediately reacts with a great attitude and states,
“I DO BELIEVE…please continually (present imperative tense) help me overcome my unbelief!”
Consider this for a moment. Imagine being the creator God and walking in the midst of the mess we have produced. Jesus recognized that things were askew! God never intended us to be taken over by demons! Jesus was here and saw, first hand, the type of things we do suffer, and had deep compassion. In this example, Jesus didn’t lecture on semantics, but gently (through a play on words) reminded this desperate father that the power was there and that they needed to believe it. Jesus then rebuked the demon and told him to come out and never enter him again. He not only drew out the spirit, but took care of the situation permanently! This is the God we serve…as the book of Hebrews states,
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Remember, we serve an empathetic, all loving God…so let’s face our life head on and trust God and remember, “If you can trust God, then all things can be!”