When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw Jesus, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 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.’ 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.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. 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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ 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.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’
“How long has this been happening to him?” Most, if not all, the times I’ve heard this read in church, the reader has sounded like a doctor investigating symptoms, but my suspicion is that we should read it more in the style of, “Good grief! How long’s he been like this?”
The disciples had been focussed on trying to cure the boy – we’d probably have done just the same – but the disciples failed and the father was angry, perhaps as yet another hope was dashed. However, rather than rushing in, Jesus took time to talk with the lad’s father, and his sympathetic question opened up the floodgates, for the father was clearly, and understandably, at the end of his tether. The conversation became one about faith; the father’s faith which may well have been wobbling because of this immense burden the family had been carrying for a long time and, perhaps because of the sympathy Jesus showed through his words and who he is, the man opened up with honesty: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
Now the story becomes really interesting: Mark tells us that it was only when a crowd was gathering – probably a crowd wanting to see a dramatic healing and irritated when it wasn’t happening – that Jesus healed the boy, which suggests to me that he would otherwise have spent even longer talking with the father. How often is it the carer who needs help; help often in the form of an understanding ear? A person close to the sufferer can be wracked with helplessness, guilt, and with the pain of loving in awful circumstances and needs time to unload this. Jesus, in this instance, attended to the needs of the carer first.
So, what about you? Just you. Can you believe, deep down, that in a difficult situation Jesus might want to talk with you first, no matter how pressing another’s needs may be from your point of view? Do YOU need to hear him say, “How long has it been like this?” Do you believe that he might want to give you time to let off steam; to get things off your chest? Well, this might just be the moment!
sometimes it really does feel as if we can’t cope any longer,
and though we still believe,
we find it hard to really live as if that were true,
and it can be so difficult,
when we look at the problems others have,
to think that the pain within us
is of significance to you.
Lord, help our unbelief,
through Jesus our friend and Saviour, Amen.
The Rev’d Ruth Crofton is a retired minister and member of Waddington Street URC, Durham.
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