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.”
“Why could we not cast it out?”
I suspect this is more than an academic question. Up to this point, after all, the disciples had enjoyed great success in Jesus’ name. They had journeyed about the country, working wonders much like their master, returning to tell him of their accomplishments. But at this juncture they failed. More than that, they failed in front of the Scribes, many of whom have not been warm to their mission or their Lord. More than that still, a crowd has gathered to watch their public failure.
“Why could we not cast it out?”
This is not an academic question; it is a heartfelt, painful, perhaps stomach-wrenching question. Why did we fail? To which Jesus answers, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”
To be honest, I’m not sure I understand Jesus’ answer. I always assumed they had prayed, but maybe they hadn’t. Moreover, I didn’t notice Jesus praying in the scene as Mark describes it. So I’m not sure what he means and don’t really understand what he has said.
But I trust it.
I trust that some things are too big for me to handle alone. I trust that some circumstances are beyond my abilities. I trust that there are times and situations when I need help. I don’t like admitting any of these things, to be honest, because a fair amount of my identity comes from being competent, self-sufficient, independent.
And there’s something to that. But it’s not the whole story. The other part of the story is about need and about vulnerability or, more to the point, my need and my vulnerability. Really, when you think about it, the other part of the story is about humanity. For we were created not to be independent operators but in relationship. God’s pronouncement, “It is not good for the human to be alone,” means more, I think, than we sometimes realize. In fact, I think it testifies that we were created for relationship: relationship with each other and relationship with God.
And that’s where prayer comes in. For whatever else prayer may, it is most certainly an invitation to be in relationship with God by speaking our needs, voicing our concerns, expressing our hopes and gratitude, confessing our faith, fears, and failures.
“Why could we not cast it out?” Because you are mortal, finite, limited, vulnerable…in a word, human.
Some of our efforts, you see, can only be accomplished through prayer. I still don’t completely understand what Jesus meant, but I trust it because I’ve experienced it. Which is why I pray.
Prayer: Dear God, draw us closer to you and to each other, that we may reclaim our identity as your children and reach out to you in times of need. In Jesus’ name, Amen.