I’m a simple man so it takes me a while to sort through my thoughts. Often I have initial reactions, which is usually what I run with, but there are times when I find myself hamstrung by a passage and unable to come to terms with what it means. Such is the passage in Mark regarding the epileptic boy (Mark 9:14-29, Matt 17:14-19, Luke 9;37-42).
There are several points of interest in this passage:
- The disciples inability to accomplish the task at hand. Now it is important to remember, that these men had been given authority to cast out demons, heal the sick and even raise the dead. But for whatever reason, this particular situation rendered them impotent. Matthew explains it is because of their “little faith.” Mark says that Jesus’ explanation it is the lack of prayer (and fasting). It should be noted that there is little doubt that Matthew was present at the event. Mark, on the other hand, gathering his information from Peter (who was not present) and others, gives a different emphasis. It could be that Jesus said something that included both “little faith” and puny prayers and each account settled on one issue. Either way, prayer without faith is simply words and faith without praying is truly unguided.
- Jesus’ frustration at the whole situation compels a reaction that is both harsh and somewhat insensitive to everyone present. If his words are directed toward the nine disciples, I can only imagine how they must have cowered and sought to back away from an already failing exercise. If it was directed toward the crowd in general (generation) than there seems to be an implication that there was plenty of blame to go around. But what role Jesus expected the crowd to play in all of this is unclear. The role of the disciples was evident.
- The father’s statement, “I believe, help my unbelief,” something that only Mark records, might have been words the nine disciples could have echoed. When the father expresses his reason for bringing the boy to Jesus, hoping that Jesus could do something to help them Jesus turns the situation around. It is not whether Jesus can help the boy, it is whether or not the father has the faith necessary (v. 23). Hence the father’s reply, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” In my estimation, that is the fulcrum of the entire event. Just as the father pointed to his struggling faith, the nine disciples may have believed but failed in their ability to act on that belief and became intimidated by the severity of the boy’s condition.
I often wrestle with my belief system and find myself frustrated with my “unbelief.” There are times when my faith seems vibrant and compelling then there are times when it seems purely analytical. There are times when I can pray effective prayers and other times when it seems my prayer does nothing more than bounce off the walls and echo back in my mind.
Perhaps if Jesus would have taken the teaching moment and showed the disciples how they could accomplish the task instead of simply doing it himself, there may have been a cohesive message between Mark and Matthew. Perhaps if he would have said “O, faithless disciples….” instead of “generation” I could have seen that even those in the inner circle struggled with their belief system just as I do. But he didn’t.
There is no doubt that often times I have “little faith.” I have powerless prayers. Consequently, I’m uncertain whether praying more results in bigger faith or bigger faith issues from praying more. I suspect it is both and, not either or. As the old gospel hymn explains, “prayer is the key to heaven, but faith unlocks the door.”