Digging in Deeper: Mark 9:29

“And he told them, ‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Are you a sudoku fan? I’m a word and numbers puzzle guy. You pick the puzzle. Crossword, sudoku, or something else doesn’t really matter. I don’t get to do them as often as I’d like, but I enjoy doing them. I maintained a USA Today subscription for a few months mostly so I could do the puzzles in them. The thing about these kinds of puzzles, though, is that there’s only one solution to the problem. You can try everything in the world, but if it’s not the right way, it won’t work. Well, sometimes life is a bit like a sudoku puzzle. You can try every way imaginable to overcome some challenge, but there is only one way that will ever positively move you forward. Jesus tells the disciples what it is here. Let’s learn with them.

Now, you can perhaps imagine how utterly frustrated and confused the disciples were with the situation they were in. It’s been a little while since we’ve talk about it. Let’s review where we are. This whole episode began when Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him up to the top of a mountain and gave the three of them a glimpse of His true glory as God the Son. Peter ran his mouth, God the Father scolded him for it, and once the show was over, the quartet headed back down the mountain.

They hit the bottom in the middle of a mess. A father had brought his demon-tormented son to be healed. The nine disciples waiting for Jesus there couldn’t heal the child which prompted an argument among them, the father, and some Jewish scribes who were always on the lookout for a chance to undermine Jesus’ authority and reputation. Jesus scolded the whole lot of them and then healed the boy. Case closed.

As Jesus and the gang began to move on to the next place, though, the nine disciples who had failed to heal the boy were really bothered by the whole thing. After all, Jesus had given them the power to heal people and cast out demons a few weeks before and they had been on their own teaching and healing tour to great acclaim. They had experienced tremendous and exciting success then. Why couldn’t they do anything about this situation?

So they asked Jesus: “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Why were we powerless here when we were powerful before? What were we doing wrong? We don’t want to be embarrassed like that again so please tell us how we can avoid that. Jesus’ response is really interesting: “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.”

What on earth does that mean?

Can I be honest with you? I don’t have any idea. Not a clue. And when I look through the various commentaries on my bookshelf, none of those guys have any better ideas. Some of them offer guesses because they’re writing a commentary and it doesn’t look very good to confess ignorance. One of them, though, much to his credit, basically acknowledges that he doesn’t have any idea and goes further to note that most of the guesses out there aren’t very good. That kind of intellectual humility in rare in the academy. That all being said, if we take Jesus strictly at His word here, it seems like there really isn’t another option for understanding Him than this: There is a class of demons whose exorcism will only be accomplished by prayer.

Let me be honest with you again: I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. At all. I know the words give that sense and that there really isn’t any more obviously clear interpretive option, but I don’t believe that one is correct. The reason for this is that such an interpretation raises way more questions than it answers. For instance: Are there demons that can be driven out by methods other than prayer? What are these methods? Are there different kinds of demons? Do some demons respond better to some exorcism methods and others to others? How do you know which is which? Is there some lore that has been passed down or a secret book containing this information? Is there some kind of an exorcist guild that has kept this knowledge and worked behind the scenes for centuries to protect humanity from things that go bump in the night? Are all the comic book fantasies true?!? This whole line of questioning seems to give legitimacy to storylines like Constantine of the DC comic book universe and the Helstroms of Marvel fame.

Surely that’s all purely fiction, though. Right? So, how do we understand what Jesus is saying here? Once again, I’m honestly not sure. Okay, but can we say anything helpful about this verse? I think so. Let me offer two observations for you to chew on today. One is interpretive, one is applicational.

First the interpretive. A few weeks ago we talked about waving the mystery flag. This is another place where we need to wave the mystery flag. If you’re counting, that makes two places in the same context. And I know that’s uncomfortable to do, but we just don’t have any good clues as to what to make of what exactly Jesus is saying here. What we must be certain not to do is to try and build any kind of a theological system on the basis of this one verse. Trying to answer any of those questions I asked just a minute ago leaves us running purely on speculation and nothing more. That’s not a foundation we can build anything on. It may make for fun storytelling, but nothing more than that. If we try and make it more than, we’re setting ourselves up to get in trouble or to create trouble for others. In other words, we need to read this verse and passage, study it carefully, pray through it fervently, and then wave the mystery flag with humility.

That being said, I think there is just a bit more we can say here as far as applying what we find. Unpacking exactly what Jesus meant in this specific context may be beyond us, but there is a bigger principle here that is helpful to our lives. Here’s that: Some things are simply beyond us. For whatever reason, driving out this demon was beyond the disciples’ abilities. We face challenges and circumstances in our own lives on occasion that are beyond our capabilities. In these situations, if we do not lean into a power that is similarly beyond us, we’ll never have even a chance at overcoming them.

And what is this power beyond us? God’s power. And how do we access this power? Prayer. There is no other way. Prayer connects us by God the Spirit to the power of God the Son which is always and only the power of God the Father. Facing our toughest situations with prayer is a fully trinitarian experience. We are setting ourselves up to be fueled by the same power that created the world and everything in it and sustains it even through this very moment. Now, no, that doesn’t mean we are going to be able to speak some new creature into existence that was not before we spoke, but we can speak ideas and circumstances into existence. We can create opportunities. We can give life with our words and actions. Most importantly of all, we can bring glory to God. Disconnected from that power, death is the only thing we can “create,” which is, of course, nothing more than the undoing of creation.

This, though, just begs another question: how do we know which situations are which? How can we recognize situations that are only going to be overcome by prayer versus those we can fairly well manage on our own? The short answer is: We can’t. We may think a situation is one kind only to learn once we are already hip deep into it that it is really the other. Our best bet, then, is to rely on the power of prayer in all of our circumstances. We learn to operate under the assumption that we are not enough on our own, but that by the grace of God expressed through the Son and administered by the Spirit, we don’t ever have to be on our own. We can operate on the power of God in all circumstances. That, my friends, will make us unstoppable. In a world that is increasingly at odds with the people of God, being ever-equipped with the power to overcome whatever obstacles it may put in our path seems like a very wise thing to me. I hope you agree. Let’s commit to staying tapped into that power by prayer together.

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