When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, 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.’
Jesus’ true character has just been revealed in his mountain top transfiguration. Having descended with four of his awe-struck disciples, he is now confronted with a crisis: swirling, excited crowds; argumentative scribes; a distraught father with a chronically ill boy; and the rest of his disciples unable to cope. Talk about ‘highs’ and ‘lows’? Yes, it has the ring of truth about it, hasn’t it? We recognize from our own experience that our elation can be short lived in the face of problems we haven’t anticipated, and can’t easily solve.
Demon possession and physical illness are often two separate conditions in the Gospels – but here both afflict the boy whose condition appears incurable. While we might use the terms ‘mental illness’ and’ epilepsy’ to describe demon possession and grand mal seizures, we do well to remember how closely linked our mental and physical faculties are. Jesus’ concern is for the welfare of the boy, rather than any analysis of the causes. His pastoral approach to relieving suffering, done as privately as the situation permitted, remains a model for the church to follow.
The distraught father who brought his son for healing to Jesus’ overwhelmed disciples, also found healing. In a dialogue with Jesus which echoes down through the centuries, ’I believe, help my unbelief’ is the cry which opens a path to healing (or salvation) for all who place their ultimate trust in God. It is a prayer whose honesty breaks down the barriers we erect between ourselves and a loving God.
What does Jesus teach us through this Gospel story? Having been comforted, do we dis-associate ourselves from the ‘faithless generation’ which Jesus found so frustrating before he healed? Where are our prayers and our faith going to take us today?
Gracious God the times we live through can oppress and dismay us, as though we had no part in their making. Teach us to be honest in our judgements, loving in our actions. Encourage us in our faith’s journey to believe that we always have a part to play in your kingdom’s coming till that day when you welcome us home Amen
The Rev’d John A Young retired minister of the National Synod of Scotland URC, member of Giffnock URC