Priests spend a fair amount of time in hospitals visiting the sick and praying with them and for them. Some of those we visit are young and generally very healthy and are expected to make quick and full recoveries; they almost always do. Praying for them is “easy” because our prayers for healing are answered and we look competent and maybe even a little holy. Others we visit are terminal. If the patient and his family are reconciled to death and have Christian hope, these visits, though emotionally fraught, carry great blessing. The prayers we offer are theologically straightforward: prayers for Christ’s presence, for peace, for comfort, and for a good and holy death at God’s right time. As priests, we look pastoral.
The difficult prayers are for those whose lives really hang in the balance; we all feel they should live, but we all know they might not. Something just seems wrong about the situation: a young child is seriously injured or a man in the prime of life is stricken with heart attack or stroke or cancer. In these cases, the family’s expectations for priestly prayer can be quite high. Even though we know it’s not true, it can feel like the priesthood – or at least the validity of our priesthood – is on the line. We do not worry about looking competent or holy or pastoral. We may worry about looking the fraud.
So, I can sympathize with Jesus’ disciples in the text this morning. Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up on the mountain for the glorious experience of his transfiguration. He has left the other nine disciples below. A crowd quickly forms around them with everyone clamoring to see Jesus. Out of that crowd, a father steps forward bringing his demon-possessed son for healing. Expectations are high. Jesus has a great reputation as a healer and exorcist and he has empowered his disciples to do similar work in his name. They must feel that their discipleship is on the line, and maybe even Jesus’ reputation.
Try as they might, the disciples cannot exorcise this particular demon. You can just sense the tension in Mark’s account: disappointment, frustration, and anger from both the father and the crowd. The disciples don’t look competent or holy or pastoral at all. They look like frauds. And they may even feel that way.
Then Jesus comes. The father complains that the disciples were not able to do anything and then pleads with Jesus: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus’ response is the climax of this story: “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”
What happens next – the father’s response – is, I believe, a case of tragic misunderstanding, and one to which we are all too susceptible.
24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Why would the father say this? What is it he thinks Jesus is saying?
My disciples couldn’t exorcise this demon because you – the boy’s father – don’t have enough faith. You don’t believe enough. So, if you’ll just try a little harder, work at it a little more, screw up a little more faith, then I’ll heal your boy. It all depends on you, now. All things are possible for one who believes.
But this can’t be right, can it? Can you imagine a priest standing by the bedside of a person at the verge of death and telling that person or his family that he could get up and walk out of the hospital totally healed if he – or they – just had more faith? Try a little harder, work at it a little more, screw up a little more faith, and then God will heal you.
But that’s not the Gospel, is it? The Gospel says that we can’t try a little harder and that even if we could it wouldn’t matter. The Gospel says we can’t work at it a little more and that even if we could it wouldn’t change things. The Gospel says that the issue is not my faith or my faithlessness but the faithfulness of Jesus. Listen to Paul in Romans 5.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom 5:6-11).
That’s the Gospel: while we were still weak – not able to try harder or work a little more or muster up more faith, in fact, while we were still God’s enemies – Christ died for us, for the ungodly. Jesus was and is faithful to the nature and mission of God, which is to show compassion to sinners and, through his blood, to make them his very own.
So, the father in our story missed the point, I’m afraid. Jesus was not telling him to have more faith, but to trust in the faithfulness of Jesus.
“If you can!” Jesus says. Well, of course he can. Everything is possible to him because he believes in God the Father who sent him, because he has faith that the Father will answer his prayers, and because he is faithful to his Father’s will.
This is the only thing that gives me – or any priest, I suspect– the courage to stand by the hospital bed of someone whose life hangs in the balance and pray for healing. If the outcome depended upon my feeble faith, I would never dare to ask. But it doesn’t. It all depends on Jesus: on his faithfulness and compassion. It all depends on the Gospel. Whatever happens as a result of prayer happens not because we worked for it, but because Jesus loves us, because Jesus is faithful. Amen.
Photo by Carole Metz. Used by permission.