The crisis of the Gospel of Mark is looming closer, as this sequence of texts represents the second one that follows the pattern of suffering prediction, the disciples inability to understand what that means, and Jesus’s further teaching. But before that sequence begins, Mark offers to us another healing narrative that emphasizes one of Mark’s central concerns; healing is less the result of Jesus’s power but is rather more based on the trust of those who seek healing and wholeness. “Trust,” sometimes more commonly translated “faith,” is a crucial element in Mark’s story of the ministry of Jesus.
In the midst of a scholarly argument between some of the disciples and some religious scholars (Mark 9:14-15), an argument that Jesus finds useless (Mark 9:16), suddenly a person in the crowd begins shouting at Jesus. “Teacher, I brought my son to you, because he has a mute spirit. Whenever it takes him over, it knocks him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and stiffens. I spoke to your disciples about having them drive it out, but they could not” (Mark 9:17-18). This is obviously a severe case, and the father is desperate for help. When he brings the boy to Jesus, the sick one immediately convulsed, fell on the ground, rolled around, and foamed at the mouth, acting exactly as the father claimed. “How long has he been like this,” Jesus asks? The phrase “how long” is familiar from the Hebrew Bible and God’s complaint against Israel during the exodus (Numbers 14:27, for example). Since he was a small child, says the father. “So if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us,” pleads the distraught father.
Jesus’s reply is quite intriguing. “What do you mean?” The implication is clear that what he means is a repetition of what the father has said, “If you can.” That is plainly for Mark the wrong question. It is not a matter of Jesus’s miraculous power to heal. Rather what one must examine is the following reality: “All things are possible for the one who trusts” (Mark 9:23). And immediately, the father speaks for all of us readers of Mark’s Gospel; “I do trust! Help my lack of trust” (Mark 9:24)! Packed into that brief outburst is a world of truth about those of us who attempt to be followers of this mysterious monarch, Jesus.
Earlier in the story, (Mark 9:19) Jesus had cried out with exasperation, “You distrustful lot” (or “you faithless generation” NRSV)! How long must I associate with you? How long must I put up with you?” At Mark 4:40 Jesus had rebuked the disciples for their lack of trust during the great storm on the Sea of Galilee. In contrast to those who do trust and are healed (Mark 2:5; 5:34), so again here Jesus cannot act with power without the trust and faith of those who follow. Once again, Jesus responds to the community as Moses did in Deuteronomy, finding little faith in the community, and thus restricting his ability to act on behalf of the God who sent him (Deut. 32:5, 20). Earlier in Mark 6:5-6, Jesus had wondered at the lack of trust he found in his hometown, making his ability to heal and teach there nearly impossible. Over and again, Mark warns that without trust Jesus is hamstrung in his ministry; he cannot be relied on to do all the work that you and I are called upon to join him in doing!
After that lengthy healing story, Jesus again predicts his inevitable death at the hands of enemies and his resurrection (Mark 9:31). And, again, the disciples “Never understood this remark, and always dreaded to ask him” (Mark 9:32). (The adverbs in my translation are implied by the verbs in the imperfect tense.) And now a dark humor returns to the tale, as the small entourage comes back to Capernaum, and Jesus wonders what it was that the disciples were arguing about on the way. “They fell completely silent, because on the road they had been bickering about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). Great heavens, all during the previous tale about trust and the crucial need for it during the work of Jesus, all the disciples can think of to discuss is who is the greatest! Mark views these disciples as little better than dunderheads, self-serving narcissists, who would not know a mission or a Messiah if they were slapped in the face with one! Of course, this will hardly be the last time that the disciples present foolish and dangerous responses to the words and actions of Jesus. Mark is going out of his way to shape his story in such a way that the disciples become our spokespersons, our representatives in our own attempts to be disciples. This close association between the disciples and the readers of the gospel is one of Mark’s finest literary achievements, one that we will see fulfilled especially in the gospel’s ultimate tale.Jesus’s response to this “greatest” talk is justly famous, and just as little understood in our own time. “If anyone wants to be ‘number one,’ that person must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)! Jesus rebukes the grasping disciples, and turns their expectations right on their head. To be great is to be last; to be important is to be servant of all. When those disciples left their nets to follow this Jesus, they had no clue what they had signed up for, and neither do we modern would-be followers. The communities of the church have spent the last two thousand years trying to get their lives around this business of a servant’s greatness, and time and again it has failed, choosing instead power and success over being last.
And so, Jesus tries again to make his point by standing a child in front of the disciples, embracing the child, and saying, “Whoever accepts a child like this in my name is accepting me. And whoever accepts me is not so much accepting me as the one who sent me” (Mark 8:36-37). The child is the model, somehow, of discipleship. Just how the child is a model has been the subject of long debate, but given the Markan emphasis on trust, I would suggest that the child is the perfect example of what it means to trust. Children in every age are fully dependent on their elders, however poor those elders may be as trustworthy people. Children cannot live in the world without the trust and care of those who are able and willing to care for them. One of any age’s greatest tragedies is when children are abused, rejected, or discarded by those whom the child trusted. To accept a child, says Jesus, is to understand what it finally means to trust in Jesus and to trust in the God who sent Jesus. Without trust, the child simply cannot live on its own. Without trust, Jesus simply cannot accomplish the work for which he was sent. Without trust, the will of God for the world simply cannot be done. When I interact with my two grandchildren, now 7 and 4 years old, I witness directly the trust they have in me to care for them, to love them, to feed them what is good, to play with them in ways that nurture and fulfill them. In them I see what Jesus means about trust and its power. Such trust has been and will be tested again and again, as I fall short of what my grandchildren need for me to be. And so it is also with my relationship to Jesus; I, like the disciples, fall short of the trust that Jesus needs to perform his ministry in the world. I must continue to seek such trust that Jesus and God have a way to make the world a place of unity and wholeness and hope for all, and that I must seek ways that I might follow that path, rather than the path of selfishness and greed and concern only for myself.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)