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Fourth Sunday of Great Lent

17. Teacher, 1 brought to you my son: Thus far in Mark, Jesus has been called "teacher" only twice (4:38; 5:35). As the narrative proceeds this title will become increas­ingly frequent (see 9:38; 10:20, 35; 12:14, 19, 32; 13:1; 14:14). The fact that the man brought his son to Jesus implies his faith in Jesus' power to heal his son. But of course Jesus was away on the high mountain during the transfigura­tion.

a mute spirit: The translation of alalon (lit. "speechless") as "dumb" is both of­fensive and inaccurate. The Greek expression pneuma alalon conveys the idea that the boy's condition is due to demonic possession, and so he can be healed only by the expulsion of the demon or evil spirit (pneuma). The spirit that possesses the boy renders him incapable of speaking and is speechless itself (alalon). Compare the earlier exorcisms where the demons speak and correctly identify Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (1:24) and as "the Son of the Most High God" (5:7).

18. whenever it takes hold of him: The description of the boy's attacks is vivid:

"dashes him down ... he foams . . . grinds his teeth . . . becomes rigid." The assumption is that the pneuma alalon initiates the attack and the other symptoms follow. The final symptom ("becomes rigid") is based on the verb xerainetai ("become dry or withered"). For Matthew's diagnosis of the boy's condition as epilepsy see his term in Matt 17:15, seleniazetai (lit. "moon­struck"), which reflects the widespread belief that epilepsy was related to the phases of the moon (selene).

your disciples . . . were not able: Since Jesus was absent, the man turned to Jesus' disciples in the hope that they could do what Jesus could do. This was a legitimate assumption in light of Mark 6:7 (where Jesus gives the Twelve authority over unclean spirits) and 6:13 (where the disciples succeed in cast­ing out many demons).

19. O unbelieving generation!: Jesus' exasperation at the unbelieving/faithless (apistos) people of his own day (see 8:38) echoes Deut 32:5: "a perverse and crooked generation." That OT text in turn influenced some manuscripts of Mark to expand 9:19a to "O unbelieving and perverted generation!" How long: The repetition of heos pote ("until when") expresses the feelings of a teacher who has been persistently misunderstood (see 4:40). There is probably also a hint of Jesus' own sense of his approaching death here. For Jesus' amazement at the unbelief displayed by his neighbors and then by his dis­ciples see 6:6a and 8:14-21. His frustration here is echoed in 8:12: "Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen I say to you. No sign will be given to this generation."

Bring him to me: Jesus apparently overcomes his personal exasperation and agrees to drive out the demon and so to bring healing to the boy and peace of heart to the father.

20. the spirit saw him . . . and he fell: The masculine aorist participle idon ("seeing") does not fit well grammatically with the neuter noun pneuma, but from the perspective of sense they belong together. The structure of the verse, with its change of subjects, highlights the role of the evil spirit in bringing on the boy's physical symptoms. For an earlier description of the symptoms see 9:18.

21. How long is it since . . . ?: The word hos here carries the sense of "from what point" or "since when." The boy has endured this condition most of his life.

22. it often throws him down: From the viewpoint of the narrative the evil spirit throws the boy into convulsions with the goal of destroying him by burning him or drowning him. The miracle is not simply a physical healing; it is first and foremost an exorcism.

if you can: What begins as a formula of politeness becomes the central motif of the story: the power of faith. The man presumably brought the child to Jesus out of a mixture of desperation and hope (see 9:17). have compassion on us and help us: For previous uses of the highly emotional verb splanchnizesthai ("be moved with pity, have compassion") see 1:41; 6:34; and 8:2. In each of those cases Jesus is the one who is moved with pity and shows compassion toward another. The verb boethein ("help, come to the aid of another") appears in Mark only here and in 9:24. The plural "us" includes at least the father and his son, and perhaps the whole family and their friends.

23. If you can!: The statement conveys more impatience on Jesus' part (see 9:19). The Greek text places the neuter definite article to before "if you can," which has the effect of emphasizing that part of the father's request in 9:22 so as then to hold it up to criticism.

All things are possible to one who believes: The saying is somewhat ambiguous and not entirely apropos. With it Jesus appears to criticize both his disciples and the father. For a similar affirmation see 10:27: "All things are possible with God." See also Jesus' challenge to Jairus in 5:36: "Do not fear, only believe." The faith Jesus expects is basically trust in his Father, but this faith probably also involves trust in the gospel (1:15) and in him as the herald of the gospel. These verses on faith and prayer foreshadow the instruction in 11:22-25.

24. "I believe. Help my unbelief": The father's cry is one of the most memorable and beloved statements in the nt because it captures the mixed character of faith within the experience of most people. The fact that the father brought the boy to Jesus shows some faith on his part already. But his hesitancy expressed in the use of "if you can" shows a less than perfect faith in Jesus and his healing power. The only previous use of apistia ("unbelief") described the reception Jesus got from the people of Nazareth (see 6:6a). Jesus is asking the father to move to an even more perfect level of faith.

25. a crowd came running together: Mention of a large crowd was made already in 9:14, 15, and 19. This verse gives the impression that only now is a crowd forming and that there is some chance of a riot. For earlier references to dis­orderly crowds see 1:45; 2:2; 3:9-10, 20; 4:1; 5:24; and 6:31.

rebuked the unclean spirit: Although the verb epitiman generally appears in con­texts where something or someone needs correction (see 3:12; 8:30, 32, 33;

10:13, 48), it also occurs in the exorcism at the synagogue in Capernaum (1:25) and in the stilling of the storm (4:39). Here the spirit who attacks the boy is identified as "unclean" for the first time. The uncleanness here is not so much ritual or even moral; the idea is that the spirit is on the side of "the evil one" (see 3:22-30).

You mute and deaf spirit, I command you: The spirit (pneuma) has already been identified as "mute" or "speechless" (alalon) in 9:17. The adjective kophos can mean both "mute" and "deaf," and so here "deaf" seems more likely. The term epitassein ("command") also appears in the exorcism at the synagogue in Capernaum (1:27; see also 6:27, 39). The emphasis on "I" highlights Jesus' personal authority as an exorcist.

Go out from him, and never enter him again: The double command not only expels the demon but also makes sure that he never returns. For the motif of the demon who does return see Matt 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26. Compare Jesus' earlier commands to demons in 1:25 ("Be silent, and come out of him!") and 5:8 ("Come out of the man, you unclean spirit").

26. after shouting and convulsing him greatly: For a similar description as part of an exorcism see 1:27: "The unclean spirit convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice and came out of him."

he became like a dead man: See 9:18 where the father says that the final stage in the boy's attacks leaves him in a rigid state. Unlike 1:27 where the reaction of the bystanders is amazement at the exorcism, here they imagine that the boy is dead. Compare the case of Jairus' daughter in 6:35-43.

27. Jesus took hold of his hand and lifted him up: These gestures accompanied the healing of Peter's mother-in-law in 1:31 and the restoration of Jairus' daughter m 5:41. The language of lifting up (egeirein) evokes the idea of resurrection—a motif confirmed by the addition of another "resurrection" verb, anistemi ("arose"), immediately afterward. The story breaks off abruptly without a tri­umphal ending, and the scene shifts to a house where Jesus and his disciples engage in private conversation about the disciples' failure to expel the demon.

28. his disciples were asking him in private: For other cases where Jesus explains dif­ficult matters to the disciples in private see 4:10; 7:17; and 10:10. Here the dis­ciples are puzzled by their own failure to perform the exorcism—something that Jesus did so easily and that Jesus had empowered them to do (see 6:7).

29. This kind cannot go out: The reference to the demon as "this kind" suggests that it possessed extraordinary force. The translation "go out" captures the active sense of the Greek verb exelthein, though the meaning is passive ("be cast out"). except by prayer: This qualification fits with the emphasis on faith in the narra­tive. It suggests that the disciples, too, needed greater faith to cast out the demon. The phrase "and fasting," though it is found in many good manu­scripts (see also the "shadow" verse in many manuscripts of Matt 17:21), is generally regarded as a later addition reflecting the growing prominence of fasting in early Christian circles.

30. they left there: This marks the end of Jesus' public ministry in Galilee, since the teachings between the second Passion prediction in 9:31 and 10:1 (which takes Jesus and the disciples to Judea and beyond the Jordan) are directed toward the disciples.

he did not want anyone to know it: The geographical notices in 9:30 and 10:1 sug­gest that the reason why Jesus did not want anyone to know about his pres­ence in Galilee was so that he might devote his time and energy to instructing his circle of disciples for one last time in their home area. However, as what follows shows (see 9:32), Jesus had little success in getting them to understand the mystery of the cross.

31. He continued teaching . . . and saying: The use of the imperfect tense in both cases indicates repeated action on Jesus' part.

The Son of Man will be handed over into the hands of men: As in the other Passion predictions (8:31 and 10:33-34), Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, thus linking these sayings to uses of the title in reference to his humanity (see 2:27-28) and to the coming of the glorious Son of Man figure on the day of the Lord (see 13:26). The keyword in this shortest of the three Passion predictions is paradidotai ("be handed over"). It appears in the present tense, though the meaning is future. The passive voice leaves open the identity of the agent. On the historical level, of course, the agent is Judas, who is described in 3:19 as "the one who handed him over." On the theological level, however, the verb paradidotai evokes the idea of the divine plan unfolding (see Isa 53:6,12). From 9:31 onward the verb becomes increasingly prominent (see 10:33; 13:9, 11,12; 14:10,11,18, 21, 41, 42, 44; 15:1,10,15) with reference to the suffering of Jesus and of his disciples. Its recurrence promotes the concept that God is the real agent behind the Passion and that everything proceeds according to God's will. See 1:14 where the use of paradidonai serves to place the arrest of John the Baptist in this same context.

they will kill him: The second Passion prediction provides less specific information about the circumstances surrounding Jesus' death than 8:31 and 10:33-34 This fact leads some scholars to regard it as the most original form of Jesus’ Passion prediction. The version in Luke 9:44 ("the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men") is even shorter. In none of the Passion predictions is there an explicit mention of crucifixion as the precise mode of Jesus' death. he will rise after three days: Mark again uses the somewhat peculiar active formula (for the nt) found also in 8:31 and 10:34. The more common divine passive formula appears in Matt 17:23 ("on the third day he will be raised"), Vi its more exact time calculation and divine passive construction.

INTERPRETATION:

One major theological theme is faith. The man brings the boy to Jesus out of a hope that Jesus might heal him (9:17). The disciples, acting on their own, fail to heal the boy (9:18). When this is brought to Jesus' atten­tion by the father, Jesus laments over the unbelief of this generation and expresses his frustration with them (9:19). When asked by the father to do something for the boy "if you can," Jesus affirms that "all things are pos­sible for one who believes" (9:23). In response the father issues his great proclamation: "I believe. Help my unbelief" (9:25). When the disciples ask about their failure Jesus points to the importance of prayer as an act of faith (9:29). From beginning to end, the story is about faith.

Another great theological theme is the power of Jesus as healer and lifegiver. Mark's interpretation of the boy's condition as demonic posses­sion places the episode in the context of Jesus' ongoing battle against the forces of evil. The fact that only Jesus—and not the disciples—could heal the boy highlights his power as the healer par excellence. And Jesus' actions in ministering to the boy after the demon had been expelled ("Jesus took hold of his hand and lifted him up, and he arose," 9:27) point forward toward Jesus' own resurrection.

For many people today the description of the boy's physical symptoms as the result of demonic possession presents personal and theological problems. Those who are sick can suppose that they are possessed by a demon or (more commonly) are being punished for their sins. These is­sues are not easy for teachers and preachers to address with reference to this biblical text; for a treatment of these matters see Daniel J. Harrington, Why Do We Suffer? A Scriptural Approach to the Human Condition (Franklin, Wis.: Sheed and Ward, 2000). Such questions can easily distract from the more positive and central themes in the passage: the nature and impor­tance of faith and the power of Jesus as a healer and as the ground of our hope in the resurrection.

 

 


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