Mark 9:14-29

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever 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, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 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 was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Geography of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The World of the Text

Text & Textual Features

This account is placed near the beginning of the second half of Mark’s Gospel, with Jesus’ ministry in Galilee faltering and his final journey to Jerusalem and his crucifixion beginning. It is preceded by two key events, the first being the central question of Mark 8:29 at Ceasarea Philippi “Who do you say that I am? followed by the glorification of Jesus in the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13). Jesus is now returning to the crowds to resume his work with them.

This relatively long and detailed narrative, which contains some repetition, The passage is the final exorcism in Mark’s Gospel, and the only miracle in the second half. It is part of Mark’s continuing account of Jesus’ struggle with the power of evil, which in this case follows and contrasts with the affirmation and glorification of the Transfiguration. It is reminiscent of an early scene in the first part of the Gospel, in which the affirmation of ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:11) is followed immediately by a struggle with temptation in the desert (1:12-13). Both Matthew and Luke will take Mark’s account and simplify it in their own Gospels. (Mt 17:14-20, Lk 9:37-43).

Mark’s account unfolds in five parts:

  • Jesus comes down from the mountain to the ‘crowds’ and they respond in awe, though the reason for this is unclear. The author may be connecting this story with the Transfiguration. Jesus finds them engaged in an argument. It is not clear what the argument actually involves, although Jesus’ rebuke suggests it is connected to the disciples’ inability to cure a boy described as possessed by a ‘mute spirit’ (vv14-18).
  • Jesus’ strident ‘You faithless generation’ (v 19) is surprising. It one level it  appears out of place and harsh. At another it continues Mark’s portrayal of disciples who do not understand what Jesus expects of them. In this passage it serves to emphasis personal faith as a major concern of the story. Jesus is exasperated at the disciples lack of belief and trust, and the author uses repetition of ‘how much longer’ to reinforce this. Jesus overcomes this feeling and turns his attention to the boy who, when brought to Jesus, begins to convulse.
  • The focus of the story shifts to the boy’s father, who appears in contrast to the disciples, in what is a remarkable exchange. Jesus questions him, him gently, seeking to understand the boy’s condition. The description given is detailed, with symptoms like epilepsy, reinforcing the seriousness of the illness. He is desperate for Jesus’ help, yet expresses some doubt that Jesus is able to do so. His polite response of ‘If you can’ (v 22) is a key element in this passage, with Jesus responding strongly that all things are possible for those who believe. The father’s response in intense and immediate, and one of the most memorable in the Gospels. He expresses the human struggle between doubt and trust, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ (v 24).
  • Jesus becomes aware of the crowd approaching, which suggests he may have moved away from them. He then moves quickly and decisively to heal the boy. He commands the spirit to leave him and never return. After some resistance, the spirit leaves and the boy becomes still like a corpse (v 26). Mark repeats a pattern he has used before with Peter’s mother-in-law (1: 31) and Jairus’ daughter (5: 41-43): Jesus takes the boy by the hand and helps him to rise (v 27).
  • The story switches abruptly to a private interaction between Jesus and his disciples in which they ask why they were unable to heal the boy whilst Jesus had been able to do so easily. They are puzzled as they had previously been ‘able to drive out demons’ (6:7 & 13) on the authority of Jesus. Jesus responded, ‘This kind can only come out through prayer’ (v 29).

Characters & Setting

  • Mark often names where event occur. However, in this passage we are simply told that   they are on a journey from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem.
  • The inclusion of scribes does not add to the central story and they quickly disappear. It would be unusual for them to be so distant from Jerusalem and Judea, so Mark may have included them to highlight tension and argument as Jesus is leaving his Galilean ministry behind and moves toward Jerusalem (Mk 10:1) and his crucifixion.
  • The boy plays an important role in the story, but his father is the central character. It is the father who asks for healing and it is the father who responds openly to Jesus’ questions. He describes in detail the real suffering of the boy and seeks real healing. His powerful response impresses Jesus, by expressing his heart-felt trust and desire to believe – ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ (v 24).
  • The demon inhabiting the boy is described as mute, with the boy unable to hear or speak. Mark’s clever use of dialogue, where only Jesus and the father speak, make the deafness and silence of all those watching, in a sense, also victims of the demon. They all need a deeper conversion.

Ideas/ phrases/ concepts:

  • Faith is the key concern of this story. The disciples are accused of a lack of faith and understanding, in contrast to the desperate father. By sandwiching the lack of understanding of the disciples either side of the faithfulness of the father, Mark highlights his message.
  • Jesus is called Teacher in this account. It is a term only used twice previously in this Gospel, however it becomes more common from this point. Contrasted against the disciples (students of Jesus), it invites consideration of who the real learners (disciples) are.  This account provides another example of the disciples not realizing what Jesus was trying to show and teach, contrasted particularly with what had been revealed in his transfiguration.
  • Jesus’ responses in this story are deeply emotional – exasperation with the crowd and disciples, patience and compassion for the father, and tenderness and concern for the boy.  Jesus is a powerful healer and giver of life; only he was able to do what was needed.
  • The necessity of prayer in union with Jesus is highlighted in the failure of the disciples, thereby linking contemplation and mission. They are not only called to action, but also to a relationship with God.
  • The language used in this healing is similar to that used in the account of Jesus’ Resurrection, as well as in the other stories of Jesus restoring people to life; of taking one who is dead, or has the appearance of death, by the hand and lifting/raising them up. It is suggestive of a sense of Jesus’ approaching death, particularly as it is located between two passages predicting his passion and death (vv 9:12-13 & (9:30-32).

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

World In Front of the Text

Questions for the teacher:

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/ challenges

This story holds some surprises, with the disciples continuing to not understand and Jesus exhibiting frustration. Mark’s audience was called to reflect on these, as well on, most importantly their own faith, in a time of terrible trial.

Readers of the passage now might be drawn to the notion of doubt and unbelief, found in the father’s begging of Jesus “Help my unbelief!” We also struggle with doubt, and unbelief may often not be far away. Doubt is not automatically wrong, as it can be an important part of belief in God providing the space for trust to grow. The challenge for us is to recognise this and to remain actively open to what it may teach us.

The father’s cry for help continues to resonate as one of the most heart-felt declarations in the Gospel.  Faced with horror, pain and desperation, he tentatively approaches Jesus and is both willing to rely on him but doubting that Jesus can help. Jesus does not dismiss the father but works with the faith he held, inviting him to strengthen this through prayer. The father both believes and doubts yet he remains open to Jesus’ action. Jesus’ leads him to recognise and embrace this tension, in ways that many contemporary Christians would resonate with.  

Mark continues to remind us of the failures of the disciples. Their sense of faith is challenged in their inability to accept that they could not act in isolation and prosper. What they would only ever achieve would be with and through God. The ongoing challenge for us is to not keep repeating this mistake.

Church interpretation and usage

The text is read in the seventh week (Monday) of Ordinary time in both years of the cycle.

In Year 1 it is accompanied by Sirach 1:1-10.

In Year 2 it is accompanied by James 3:13-18.

These readings focus on the themes of the source and influence of divine Wisdom.