What is a believer? What is an unbeliever? Which are you? Don't jump to conclusions too quickly; just because a person is sitting in a church pew doesn't necessarily mean that he or she is a person of great faith.
There used to be more certainty about the content of Christian faith than there is today. Children used to learn their catechisms and memorize Scripture. These days, it seems as though "believers" can be just about anything, making it up as they go along. A few months ago I heard a sermon in which the preacher exhorted us for 15 minutes to have faith without ever saying a single word about what we were supposed to have faith in. Surely, however, we cannot avoid the issue indefinitely. And so the question becomes, faith in what?
In Mark's Gospel, Jesus has just come down off the Mount of Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John "beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:14). Before you know it they are all coming down off the mountain and Jesus is plunged into the midst of yet another controversy. We learn that a number of curious people have gathered around the disciples and the scribes.
Jesus asks the disputants, "What are you discussing?" (Mark 9:16). One of the men takes responsibility for setting off the conflict. "Teacher," he said, "I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever 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, and they were not able" (vv. 16-18).<>
This is the immediate cause of the controversy; the official teachers of the Law are heaping scorn upon the disciples of Jesus for presuming to wield the power of exorcism--and then for failing at it. Because the disciples' ministry is an extension of Jesus' own, we can see right away that the Master's authority is now in question. We are meant to feel the tension in the situation as everyone looks at Jesus to see what he will do.
"O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (v. 19). This very unusual outburst offers an extraordinary insight into the depth of our Lord's loneliness and isolation among us on earth. It has become apparent to him that not even his closest friends understand him. Jesus does not speak here with ordinary human impatience; he speaks as the only One who has perfect faith in the midst of an unfaithful world.
Let us envision this scene. Jesus is surrounded by many people, none of them really dependable and most of them outright hostile. His disciples have misapprehended their own vocation; they think that their proximity to Jesus guarantees magical powers to them. Because of their failure, the crowd is now wondering if Jesus himself isn't bogus, too. In particular, the father of the possessed boy has just seen his hopes dashed and his confidence badly shaken.
Jesus says, "Bring the boy to me." We are told that when they did so, the evil spirit "saw Jesus," and "immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth" (Mark 9:20). We today would say that this was epilepsy, and indeed, most commentators have long agreed on that diagnosis. However, we are being told something different here, something revelatory; the epilepsy is distinct from the boy. There is an enemy at work in him. I am vividly reminded of a famous New Yorker magazine article from about 20 years ago, the story of the Creedmoor psychiatric hospital and a severely afflicted schizophrenic named Sylvia Frumkin. Her mother came to see her at the hospital and found her in a straitjacket. Sylvia said, "It's not me, Ma. It's the illness. The illness is stronger than I am."
Jesus never says a word to the boy at all. The boy is lying on the ground writhing and foaming. The only active characters are the father, the demon, and the Lord.
We, the readers of Marks's Gospel, already know something about Jesus that the father does not know; in earlier chapters, Mark has let us in on the secret that Jesus has absolute power over the demons and they are terrified of him. But the father is not aware of this cosmic drama. He is like any frightened parent of a sick child; he is bewildered, helpless, desperate. He has brought his son to Jesus' disciples hoping for help, but their failure has caused him to lose most of that hope. He isn't expecting much at this stage. He says, "[The evil spirit] has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us" (Mark 9:22). From these words, we see that we are looking at a human life about to be obliterated by an evil power, and we are aware that the father is very doubtful of Jesus' ability to do anything about it.
Jesus delays. The disciples have failed, the teachers of the Law look on scornfully, the crowd hangs back in bemusement, no longer certain what to expect as the Master draws out the dialogue with the father by repeating his own doubtful words back to him: "'If you can do anything!' All things are possible to him who believes." And immediately the father of the boy cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (vv. 23-24).
In a split second, the father has been seized by hope. He has been seized by life. He has been seized by the power of God. And the father's own corresponding action is to grasp with all his might at the giver of hope and life and healing power. He puts himself into Jesus' hands totally. In words that have been called the greatest cry of faith in the entire Bible, he places himself under the mercy and mastery of the Lord. "I believe; help my unbelief!"