Midweek Musing for May 4, 2022
I believe one of the most profound scriptures in all of the gospels is found in the 9th chapter of Mark. It occurs as Jesus is coming off the mountain top experience, which we know as The Transfiguration.
The text says that as he comes down off the mountain, he finds a group of his disciples arguing with a group of scribes and Pharisees. When the disciples see Jesus, they run to him.
The Greek word used to say why they came to him quickly is "ekthambeo." This word can be translated as awestruck or astounded or fearful or distressed, or out of a sense of wonder.
That is a pretty wide range of definitions and feelings.
Perhaps they could still see the glow from the transfiguration, and they were awestruck with a sense of wonder.
But perhaps they saw his coming as a way to get out of the argument they were in, like faking a cell phone call coming in so a conversation stops. Or maybe they thought Jesus would be upset with them for fighting, and they feared him being disappointed. Maybe they were just glad to see Jesus and wondered what was next.
Regardless of what they were thinking, it is clear Jesus knew they had been in an argument. Maybe he could feel the tension in the air. Like the tension, I discovered once when I walked in on my parents as they were having a disagreement. Now, I didn't actually hear any arguing, but I could feel the tension and backed out of the room quickly and quietly.
Jesus, however, did not do this; instead, he jumped in feet first, asking what they were arguing about.
Now the story that is shared is this.
A man had brought his son to the disciples to be healed, and they had been unable to. The text says an evil spirit possessed him. However, many scholars believe from the description that the boy had a seizure disorder, most likely epilepsy.
The description of the boy's ailment notes that he often falls down to the ground, violently shaking and convulsing.
Of course, in first-century Palestine, it would certainly seem to folks as if an evil spirit had taken possession of the boy.
Even today, the same description of an evil spirit possessing someone might hold true.
While I have witnessed only one seizure in my life, I have personally had four grand mal seizures. If you ask anyone who has witnessed one of them, they will say I was possessed (especially my daughter Sydney who has witnessed two of them.)
As an aside, my last seizure was caught on security video, and I watched as much as I could bear a few weeks later. And from the video, I would agree that I did look possessed.
Whatever was wrong with the man's son, the disciples had been unable to heal him.
However, the man would not give up, and he was insistent that he wanted his son healed.
After hearing all of this, Jesus rebukes all of them in the crowd, saying they are part of a faithless, unbelieving generation. After his rebuke, though it seems Jesus had compassion for the man and his ailing son, so he asked to see the boy.
The NRSV tells the rest of the story this way:
And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, 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 keeps 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.
For me, the most powerful statement in this text and in perhaps all of scripture comes from the father of the child when he says, "I believe; help my unbelief!"
This statement from the father speaks to me…to be frank; it sounds like me.
But undoubtedly, the reason the line is so meaningful is because of Jesus's response to it.
In his book Living Faith, President Jimmy Carter also talks about how he was influenced by this passage, especially after he studied the works of the great theologian Paul Tillich.
President Carter writes the following words. "One of his (Tillich's) themes is that doubt and is an acceptable, even necessary aspect of faith-that faith implies continuing to search, not necessarily a final answer."
President Carter says he found himself repeatedly coming back to this story in Mark and the interaction between Jesus and the father, which leads to the boy's healing.
He continues his discussion of faith and doubts in Mark's gospel story by sharing these words. "The assurance Jesus offers in this story-that we will not be turned away on account of our doubts or skepticism but that he will "help our unbelief"-has meant a great deal to me, especially in times of pain or trouble. At such times, I've felt strongly the need of something more permanent and profound than a successful career, being president, or even my relationship with Rosalynn. Jesus' acceptance has given me this."
Friends, Jesus doesn't ask us to live a life without doubts. Instead, he meets us where we are, which is often a messy place between belief and doubt, faith and uncertainty.
The most important thing for God is that we come, and we keep coming. If I understand the text, that is what a walk of faith is all about.
Hebrews 11:1 says, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And while I heard this probably thousands of times, I don't think I "got it" until I read a line from the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard who wrote, "Faith means the betting of one life upon the God in Jesus Christ,…the giving or commitment of one's whole life."
Though this man had doubts, he bet his life and the life of his son Jesus. This man could have been mocked or exiled, or worse had his son not been healed. He would already have been accused of being a sinner since society believed the father's sins often landed upon their sons.
However, even amid that unbelief, he believed enough to bet everything on Jesus.
May we have the same faith in the midst of our own unbelief to do likewise.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.