14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And 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.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
After many years of work and owning his own business, my neighbor was ready to retire. His wife’s career had also come to its fulfillment. They were so happy. But then a few months into retirement, she was not feeling well. She grew jaundiced, her skin turning a sickly yellowish green. They went to the doctor and the news was grim: pancreatic cancer. The next months were excruciating. There was nothing to do. Pancreatic cancer has a tiny survival rate. It is resistant to almost every treatment. Finally, we all gathered in the little Methodist church they attended. It was the day of her funeral.
We were helpless before what we saw in those months of her sickness and death. Re-read this portion of Mark. Do you see how everyone in this story was helpless except Jesus? The disciples cannot cast out this demon. It is too much for them. The young boy is helpless before its grip on him. The father is helpless too. When he speaks to Jesus he seems to be at the end of hope. “If you can…” he says to the Lord. Jesus tells him that all things are possible for those who believe. “I believe, help my unbelief!” cries the man. He knows he needs help on every quarter, even this most personal and intimate element of his life – his belief. The demon is exorcised but the child lies on the ground. The people all say, “He’s dead.” And death renders all of us helpless.
There was no funeral home industry in the ancient world. People buried the members of their own family. They were used to being around dead bodies. They knew what they looked like. This child looked dead. He was probably dead. But our Savior and Lord is not deterred by death. Indeed, when reading the Gospels, he does not seem even to recognize it. He takes the child by the hand and stands him up, alive. Even death must yield to Him.
Our Lord’s final words in this reading are the key for us. He enjoins us to prayer. Prayer is simply the embodied action of faith. Prayer says that I cannot, but God can. We may say it in a hundred different ways, but finally it boils down to this simple admission. Like the disciples, like the boy, like the father, like my neighbor Gary and his wife, Sharon, like everyone else in this account and in this world, I am helpless. Our Sunday services often include the Kyrie – the prayer of the sick, blind, lame, and other helpless people in the Gospels and ever since that time: Lord, have mercy! He does have mercy on Sharon, my friend’s wife, and our neighbor from many years ago. He has mercy on you too.