Sunday of St. John of the Ladder, April 11, 2021
Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:17-31
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
When I was asked if I would preach this Sunday, I thought to myself, “Ah, good—an opportunity to show that I don’t preach about just demons all the time now.” But then I looked at the Gospel, and it’s an exorcism story. So, here we are. But there are a lot of exorcism stories in the Gospels.
In this account from Mark 9, a man brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus for him to be healed. The demon threw the boy into seizures, which often injured him and even threatened his life. Now, some might say, “He just has epilepsy.” But Jesus did not say that. Instead, He said, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” So that rules out a mere medical problem. We’re definitely dealing with a demon here. Jesus recognized that and acted on it.
There is a lot in this passage that we can connect with, even if we are not subject to demon possession. But we need to back up a little and talk about that first.
It is true that most of us are not possessed by demons. Most of us have not had a demon actually take control of our bodies and force us to do things as this boy did. And lest we get too scared that it could happen to anyone, we should remember that this doesn’t happen randomly. How did this boy get possessed? We don’t know, but we do know that possession happens because of some kind of intense participation with demonic powers, such as great sin or engaging in the occult. We can’t imagine a mere boy opening himself up to this, but is his father to blame somehow? It’s possible, but more on that in a moment.
Anyway, even if we are not possessed by demons, we are certainly involved with them. What do I mean? We know as Christians that if we do the works of God, by being faithful to Him, loyal to Him, obedient to Him, imitating Him, then we become more like Him. This process is called theosis. But there is an opposite process, too. If we do the works of demons—if we sin—then we become like them instead. There is no neutral ground.
So this means that we all have an interest in and the need for exorcism. The Christian life starts with exorcism at baptism. And then it continues with exorcistic actions every day—because whenever we participate in God’s works, we turn away from demonic works and drive the demons out. So this Gospel account is directly relevant to us, like all the exorcism passages.
Faith, Belief, or Faithfulness?
So there is something at play in this one that I think is really critical for us to understand clearly, but it gets hidden beneath the way that English translation treats it. After Jesus’ disciples admit that they can’t cast out this demon, Jesus talks about living among a “faithless” generation. And then when the boy’s father tells Jesus about the demon and what it does, Jesus says to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the man replies, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
So if you just read that translation, when the disciples ask Jesus later, “Why could we not cast it out?” you would expect that Jesus’ response would be, “It’s because you didn’t believe.” Right? But that is not what He says.
Instead, He says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”
Wait a minute! I thought this whole thing was about not believing! It’s a faithless generation that doesn’t believe. But everything is possible for someone who believes, right? But don’t they believe enough? Apparently not. But then… “prayer and fasting”? What’s going on?
Here’s where translation is a problem. Because if you look at the Greek that lies beneath those various words, you discover that faith and belief and faithless and believe are actually all the same word in Greek. If it’s the noun, it’s pistis, and if it’s the verb, it’s pistevo. Whatever that word means, Jesus keeps using it. And the man who replies to Him uses it, too.
And whatever it means, Jesus says that the lack of pistis requires prayer and fasting.
Now I will show you how a better translation makes sense of this whole passage by translating all these words consistently, and consistent with the admonition for prayer and fasting:
Jesus says, “O unfaithful generation! How long am I to be with you?”
And He says, “If you can be faithful, all things are possible to him who is faithful.”
And the man replies, “Lord, I am faithful! Help my unfaithfulness!”
So in some way this man was unfaithful, which may be how his son became possessed. We don’t know. Anyway, when the disciples ask Jesus why they failed in their attempts at exorcism, He tells them they had to pray and fast—that is, they had to be faithful to the disciplined spiritual life that He had given them. If the problem was that no one was “believing” hard enough, how would prayer and fasting help? Would they believe more? No, it’s not about agreeing with something harder. It’s about being faithful to God. It’s action, not thought or feeling.
See how much more sense this now makes? In fact, while pistevo does sometimes mean “believe” in some places in the New Testament (such as in James 2:19, which talks about the “belief” of demons), it almost always actually refers to being faithful. Faithfulness is the means by which we receive the benefits of God’s grace, not simply agreeing with it.
So now it should be clear how this applies to all of us. If we are afflicted by demonic attack, if we are bound up in sinfulness, if we are plagued by anger, hatred, holding grudges, addiction, etc.—then the response is not “believe harder.” The response is to be faithful. That is why prayer and fasting is what Jesus prescribed here, because it’s part of what it means to be faithful.
By this point in Great Lent, we may be a bit weary either of fasting or the increased prayer. Or we may be starting to feel guilty about how we have neglected the fasting and prayer. And it is tempting to just go ahead and say “yes” to temptation.
And I don’t mean a temptation to eat meat. Eating meat is not in itself a sin. I mean the temptation to fall away from our faithfulness to Christ. It is the temptation to pursue our own desires rather than the desires of God. It is the temptation to slouch back into our weariness in doing good. It is the temptation to despondency, to selfishness, to gluttony, to anger. These tend to be the temptations we experience most in Great Lent, because they are precisely the temptations that turn us away from the virtues that Great Lent especially cultivates. It’s very targeted.
One of the great questions of our time, and one I have heard many times in confession, is the problem of having faith. People often have the sense that they just don’t believe hard enough. And they point to feelings of doubt, of unforgivingness, and so on. And they conclude that they are bad Christians, or that maybe God doesn’t care or doesn’t even exist. And what defines this crisis is the need to be emotionally or intellectually certain.
But certainty is not what it means to be Christian. It is not what faith is about. So if you have these feelings or these thoughts, they are actually irrelevant to Christianity. Christ does not call us to have particular thoughts or feelings of agreement. He calls us to faithfulness.
So we hear this exorcism story today and its conclusion: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” The targeted demonic attacks we experience especially in this holy season are real, and we can spot them because of how they are so specifically designed to pull us away from participating in it. But these things do indeed come out by prayer and fasting. So, don’t give up. Be encouraged. Because Christ has come to heal us.
To Jesus Christ Who holds all authority over spirits, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.