“And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
– Mark 9:29
As I continue to anticipate the “Triumphal Entry” in Mark 11, I find myself reflecting on the call to prepare, to keep my eyes open for what Jesus says is coming on this road to Jerusalem (Mark 10:33)- the predicted suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem…”
As He prepares to approach the Cross (and as we do likewise in this season of Lent), Jesus calls the disciples to consider the place of prayer in helping them to make sense of the Way that is to come.
So why Prayer?
When we find Jesus facing the reality of his own death in the garden (14:32-42), his first position is towards prayer. In this same spirit, his call to the disciples is to also pray. The closer we get to the Cross, the more necessary prayer seems to become.
The indication in Mark 9 is that prayer exposes our limitations. Prayer picks up where we have nothing left to give. As Jesus says, there are certain things that can only be “driven out” by prayer, and when we come to the end of ourselves, prayer accomplishes what we cannot.
So the first question I had in reading this passage was, what does Jesus mean when he says “this kind”? What are the limitations He is referring to?
The immediate answer seems to be the spiritual forces that are clearly present in the passage. Here we find a boy who has been possessed by demons since “childhood” (or birth), demons that prove to be more powerful than the disciple’s ability to counter them in Jesus’ absence.
We could also recognise these “kinds” in a more general sense, as a metaphor for our ability to face the impossible struggles in this life, and the power of Jesus to help us face the impossible.
However, as I considered this passage in the light of the larger Gospel message, another possibility jumped out for me:
A Precursor to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
In this passage, the boy suffers (for years), they believe the boy is dead, but then it says he “arose”. What is of interest is the passage that immediately follows this story. Here the healing of the little boy is set in the light of Jesus’ second prediction of His own suffering, death, and resurrection.
I could be wrong, but it is possible that Mark was looking to represent this passage, which interestingly is the longest rendering of this story in all of the Gospels (and as a Pastor at my Church pointed out, possibly the longest narrative in the Gospel of Mark itself), as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own experience on the cross. If this is true, what should come to light in the story of the healing of the boy is the suffering and the restored life, not the possession. But there even more still to this passage that causes me to think this is the right interpretation:
Keep Watch and Pray so that you do not fall into temptation
Actually, before Jesus calls them to pray, the first thing he asks them to do is to watch. This reminds me of the call to look and “see” the path that lies ahead, the road to Jerusalem. It is in their failure to keep watch that he then calls them to watch “and” pray “so that (they) may not enter into temptation”.
First, this call to watch (or to see) is a prominent theme in Mark. On the road to the Cross, Jesus continues to encourage the disciples to see the Way in which He is headed. In the story of the Gospel, Mark continues to emphasize the call to see Jesus for who He is. And the disciples continue to resist it. Here in the garden they are once again called to watch, to look and see (and anticipate) what is coming- the suffering,
Here in the garden they (the disciples) are once again called to watch, to look and see (and anticipate) what is coming- the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus that He has been foretelling. And here is the thing. Jesus does not call them to keep watch so as to conquer or stand in the way of the coming enemy. This would be against the message that the Cross is the way, through the suffering and death that it entails, that Jesus has chosen to travel. Rather, the disciples are called to watch so as to become aware of what Jesus is doing on the road to the Cross, and what He is doing Mark has made rather clear for his readers. He is bringing God’s Kingdom, His kingdom to the world, for the sake of the world. He is opening up the doors of the Gospel, God’s promised restoration, the restoration they have been waiting for so that God’s saving power can be embraced by the world without limitations
This is what the disciples are called to keep watch for. They are called to see the Way of Jesus as He declares His Lordship, His Kingship, on His terms, not ours.
When I recognize this, I can now begin to understand the temptation in the garden to be speaking to:
- our tendency to either miss what Jesus is doing (being found asleep with our eyes closed) or;
- our tendency to resist what He is doing (to see what Jesus is doing and insist that His way through suffering and death on the Cross is not the way they expected the Messiah to establish this new Kingdom).
It is against these two tendencies that Jesus calls us back to the power of prayer that this story about the healing of a little boy brings to light. Jesus is able to embrace the suffering and death that is coming His way because of the power that prayer entails, and He extends this same power to us.
The Temptation, the Transfiguration, and the Power to Transform
As I wrote in my previous reflection on the marriage of salt and fire in Mark 9:42-50, the temptation is the tendency to allow our own unbelief (in the power of God to save on His terms, not ours) to hide the message of the Cross from those who need to hear it. When it speaks of causing these little ones to stumble, it is ultimately a message of inclusion versus exclusion. It is about the sin of hiding from someone the Gospel truth that they are a child of God.
“I believe, help my unbelief”
– Mark 8:23
Matthew reads this same story (of the healing of the little boy) as a problem of “little faith”, faith in what Jesus is actually doing on the Cross. In Mark 9, we find Jesus coming down the mountain after the account of the Transfiguration to rejoin the disciples. This is when we encounter the demon possessed little boy. By connecting these stories together, Mark is presenting us with a contrast. The unbelief of the disciples that leaves them unable to the heal this little boy in Jesus’ absence leads to a lack of power, while the power that the Transfiguration affords to Jesus on the mountain (in declaring Him the Son of God) declares Him to be all the power that we need. It is at this moment that the truth that we as readers have been made privy to in the opening line of Marks Gospel seems to become unleashed on the world- Jesus is the son of God, God Himself taken on flesh. He is the hope for the world, the power of God to transform the world. But what this also does is open up the tension for what this means for us in our own limitations, and it is in the story of a little boy’s healing that we are confronted with the reality of this tension.
And here is the thing. When we insist on our own way, we miss Jesus. When we raise our eyes up to the Mountain, when we lift our sights upwards and outwards, this is where we learn to see Jesus.
And here we arrive at the true power of prayer. Prayer is the means by which we re-center our perspective on the source. It is the way in which we move our eyes from our own need to control our circumstance, our own desperate need to control outcomes, to the one who then moves our sights from the mountain to the Cross, to the will of the Father rather than our own. “This kind”, our struggle to accept the will of the Father, to resist the road that we find in the Way of Jesus, can only be driven out by prayer.
All through the Gospel of Mark, the disciples resist Jesus’ predictions to where He is heading. And all through the Gospel Jesus continues to point them back in this direction. He points our sights upwards and outwards, to the throne on the mountaintop to the work at the foot of the Cross. This Way seemed impossible to the disciples. This is not how the Messianic promise was to come to fruition. Death is not an answer to suffering, nor was the Resurrection of their King, a single individual, the way to the restoration of their people. And yet, here we find the story of a father approaching Jesus saying, “if you can… have compassion on us and help us. (Mark 9:22)” To which Jesus answers, “All things are possible for one who believes.” This is what prayer does. As the father cries, “I believe, help my unbelief”, this becomes his prayer. And it is in this prayer that Jesus affords this belief, the kind of belief that comes not from ourselves, but from the Spirit of God, power. Power enough to find God’s compassionate care, His desire for restoration and healing in the face of this little boy’s suffering and death.
Power enough to raise Jesus from the Cross in order to bring His Kingdom to the world.