Several years ago I heard a story of a high powered female executive driving her young daughter to dance class. Having finished an important phone call the woman removed her headset and tossed it on the backseat beside her child to signal that she was ready to hear about her daughter’s day. Immediately, her daughter donned the headset. The proud mother smiled in anticipation of her daughter following in her footsteps with all of the power that went with it. “Hi, my name is Madison,” the little girl said. Mom was beaming with how clearly she began her “call” and waited to hear what would come next.” … ….. “Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order.”
Needless to say, the mother’s smile drooped in horror as she hypothesized the genesis of this disturbing role play. Was this her daughter’s ambition in life or was this who her daughter thought Mom was – the voice on the other end of a mystical contraption that magically produces chicken nuggets and chocolate milkshakes – all at the simple command of your voice. Wow.
Jesus finds himself riding alongside our “may I take your order mom” as he comes upon his disciples, a demon possessed boy, and his own “headset” lying in the dust nearby. Chapter 9 of Mark’s gospel reads, “And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd about them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and ran up to him and greeted him.”
Now we know that Jesus was so ordinary that Judas had to use a signal to identify him in the Garden of Gethsemene, so why, here, when this crowd saw him were they greatly amazed, running up to greet him? Mark does not spell it out for us, but Jesus had just come from the mountain on which he had been transfigured and his garments were radiant. Perhaps, like Moses, his face still shone like the sun. So here he is glowing, not unlike our mom, as he finds his disciples engaged in the very same activities he has been engaged in, in his ministry. He must have been proud to find them out and about, like him, doing the will of the Father. A crowd has gathered around them, scribes are arguing with them, there is talk of a miracle – exorcising a demon. And then, there it is, “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?”
“Teacher,” the boy’s father says, “I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; 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, and they were …. not … able.”
Do you want fries with that? ……… Moses had, had a similar experience when he had come down from the mountain. He found Miriam and Aaron, in charge so to speak in his stead, amongst a crowd, helping them dishonor God in faithless disobedience, all the while proclaiming “tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” Here, Jesus’ disciples were bringing dishonor upon God and they were doing it in a crowd in Jesus’ name. Is it wonder then, that Jesus became angry? “O faithless generation,” he cried out. “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”
I don’t know about you, but it makes me more than just a bit uncomfortable that Jesus never bemoaned living in the lowly state of humanness, not even once, which if you think about it might be akin to giving up this life for the life of a clam, wallowing in mud one moment and tumbling on the sea bottom the next. But here, standing amongst his disciples who just did not get it he could not wait to get away. Beam me up, Daddy! I need to know what the “it” was that they didn’t get so I don’t elicit such a response. Some people assume Jesus is only calling the scribes and the crowd a faithless generation, but Mark’s carefully constructed telling of this event points mostly to the disciples as the target of Jesus’ angst.
At this juncture, Jesus stops the car. On the side of the road he questions the boy’s father. “… it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him;” the man says, “ but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” If. Such a simple little word. If. Please drive around to the first window for angry outburst number two. “If you can!” Jesus mimics incredulously. “All things are possible to him who believes.”
Why would Jesus be so angry? Here’s my take. Clearly this man had, had faith that Jesus could heal his son. After all, he began his conversation with Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought my son to you.” But now, he uses the word “if.”
As we sit here on the curb amongst this scene, we need to peer into the car and see that it is us fiddling with the headset. The father was bringing his son to Jesus, but turned to his disciples in Jesus’ absence. Not only were the disciples not able to cast the demon out, but their lack of that “it” that we have yet to discover, has caused the father to begin to question his faith in Jesus. Instead of building faith, the disciples were contributing to its dissolution.
What would the disciples have had to argue with the scribes about? The disciples couldn’t cast out the demon, end of story – unless the disciples were arguing that Jesus could cast it out, but because of the disciples’ failure the scribes were probably insisting that they are all frauds and that Jesus would be unable cast it out, too. We know that the crowd is probably disillusioned because it has obviously begun to drift away. We know this because Mark tells us that when the father responds to Jesus’ outburst with “I believe; help my unbelief” the crowd came running together.
Is there still something to believe in they wonder?
Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and it leaves the boy. But the crowd is still suffering from the virus of doubt and seeing that the spirit had left the boy lying on the ground, they supposed him dead. Jesus takes the boy by the hand and he rises. Uncharacteristically, Mark gives us no description of the crowd’s response here. Perhaps because Mark too wants to get to the “it” he has set the stage to reveal.
Once in private, his disciples could not wait to question Jesus. Mark tells us that “when he had entered the house his disciples asked him,” which conveys to me an immediacy of their questioning. This wasn’t just later. They didn’t wait for him to recline at table. As soon as he crossed the threshold they wanted to know. My thought is that they, too, knew there was an “it” they had yet to get. But isn’t it interesting that they didn’t ask him on the way home. They waited until they were in private. Hmmmm.
One has to wonder if they were, at this point, demanding an accounting of why they pushed the miracle button and no miracle popped out or were they truly seeking after the truth. It was likely a little of both, if we can project our own character onto them.
Mark is the only gospel that provides us the vivid detail of this account that we’ve just reviewed. Matthew and Luke’s don’t include the confounding first response that seems to be the point of Mark’s retelling of these events. We should see, too, that this is one of the few times that Jesus answers their question directly and without commenting on their lack of understanding. They need to get this critical point, now! When his disciples ask “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus responds. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Oh, OK. … Oh. No, wait a minute. What is he talking about? Jesus didn’t go off by himself. He didn’t pray over the boy. He didn’t even cry out to heaven. He simply said, “I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” Like he was, ah, placing an order.
Jesus says this kind (of demon we suppose) requires prayer, yet we don’t see him pray. He simply commands it to leave just like he had done with previous exorcisms. Mark is expanding our understanding here of prayer, of faith and of our relationship to God. Matthew and Luke’s gospels had taken a bit of a different turn here, not including this response concerning prayer. Their gospels focus directly on faith and in so doing, seem almost to put their emphasis on the strength of the faith of a person; not in the sense that the person in themselves has the strength, but their faith is the strength that enables one to perform such miracles as casting out demons. But for Mark, the “it” we desperately need to grasp is our relationship with God; prayer is that deep abiding communion with God that draws us so close we live in His will and His power. Note the Jesus we see here is so close to God he need only make a statement and the demon leaves the boy.
You know it is believed that Mark wrote his gospel from the eye witness accounts given to him by Peter. It is not a stretch to imagine that Peter would remember and pass on details that stress our relationship as much if not more so than our faith. Remember that it was Peter who thought he was so close to Jesus because of his faith, but who found out that his faith was more so in an ideology about Israel, than it was in who Jesus was and what his mission was. It was Peter who Jesus rebuked, telling him “Get behind me Satan,” when Peter’s faith flew in the face of God’s plan of salvation. It was Peter who said he would die right along with Jesus, but who at Jesus’ hour of need, denied Jesus not once, but three times. It was Jesus, though, who restored Peter, making him breakfast after His resurrection. Jesus and Peter’s relationship truly began that day and in that relationship, Peter began to manifest a power that performed far more than miracles.
I think we should also always remember that Jesus donned not a headset, but a towel and knelt to wash his disciples feet. Yes, those disciples dishonored him. Those disciples who he knew would abandon Him. Jesus would gladly “take your order,” so the next time you drive through McDonald’s remember that Jesus came to serve and that we who would follow him should also serve. Being a disciple of Christ, not merely a fan of Christ, is not child’s play. If you truly aspire to be like Christ, you must don His crown of thorns and suffer alongside of Him. Jesus’ response shows us just how serious he is about our relationship with God. And lest we forget, so serious, is he, that he gave his own life for us to open the path for us to have that relationship with our Father.