This morning’s Gospel reading is a story told not only in the Gospel of St. Mark but also in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke Usually, when the same story is told in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, it is safe to assume that the event was significant enough to warrant the special attention of each of the Gospel authors. But what exactly is so special about this particular event that caught the attention of Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke and caused them to tell us about it?
Of the three accounts of the story, St. Mark provides the most details. From him, we get a fairly clear picture of what happened. It was certainly a humiliating experience for the disciples, that is for sure. Crowds of people were following them and when they were faced with the boy with the evil spirit, they tried to deliver him but found they were completely powerless. Everybody witnessed their confusion and humiliation, and it was natural that after Jesus had performed the miracle and set the boy free the disciples should come to Him and ask, ”Why could we not drive it out?” Let us take a few minutes and look more closely at this incident, at the disciples and at the question they asked.
We begin with a boy who had an evil spirit, who was possessed by ”a spirit that had robbed him of speech” (Mark 9:17). The disciples faced a demon-possessed boy. It was common in those days, as it is in these days, for people to become possessed by evil spirits, and in a real sense, the situation that faced the disciples is the same situation facing the Church today. Many people around us are gripped by sin and controlled by Satan.
This is not popular doctrine and not universally accepted, but St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians makes it clear that unregenerate men and women are living their lives under Satan’s domination. (Ephesians 2:2-3). Every person who has rejected God is controlled by the spirit of evil. If God is not present in your life, then the evil one is; he is constantly leading you astray, telling you that what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right. Is it any wonder that our society and the world are so messed up? Because we have pushed God away, we no longer know what truth is. Even worse, we make up the truth as it suits us. This is the great joy of the devil. He rejoices when faith in God is diminished or lost. Weak faith or no faith at all impede us from doing the work of the Lord. A weak faith may have been why the disciples could not help the boy in this morning’s Gospel lesson.
The boy’s situation was tragic. The disciples sought the healing of the boy, but they failed completely. It was a tragic failure; they were helpless and powerless. This was more tragic because Jesus had expressly given them the power to work miracles and they had previously exercised this power successfully. But for some reason, they could not help this young boy. Given their previous successes, the disciples were naturally taken aback by the fact that they failed on this occasion. Have there not been times when we have felt the same way, when we have consistently been successful in our endeavors and then comes that moment of utter failure?
All around us there are people in need and we, as the Lord’s disciples, to whom He has given the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, are powerless to do anything to help. We see few conversions and little evidence of God’s power working through the ministry of the Word and through our churches. We have elaborate and sophisticated organizations, large committees, full schedules of carefully planned meetings, all kinds of modern methods, and we even have the money, but instead of bringing souls to Christ, we spend all our time doing community service projects, fighting for the underdog and downtrodden, and being the champions of causes that are dear to our hearts. Serving others is definitely a good thing. In fact, serving others is mandated by the Gospel. Unfortunately, however, the way in which we serve others is not entirely what the Gospel has in mind.
The shift by many in the Church to an obsession with social justice as her primary outreach to the world distracts the divine mission of the Church, which is the salvation of souls. By emphasizing social justice over the Church’s mission of saving souls, the realities of personal sin, repentance, faith, and conversion are diminished or lost altogether. All around us the need of lost souls is desperate. There is spiritual ignorance, an increasing moral drift, drug addiction, sexual perversion, increase in crime, and the tragedy is that the Church is failing to check these evil trends. The crowd says, “They could not…” It is a public failure and a humiliating experience for us. The Church of God in a Devil-possessed world seems powerless to cast out the devils of unbelief, immorality, increasing divorce and the mounting tide of evil. “Why…?”
The disciples asked Jesus privately this same question: “Why could we not cast it out?” This indicates the shame, humiliation, and disappointment they felt. Certainly, the disciples did many good works in Christ’s name. So too, many of us do good works in Christ’s name, but when it comes to the really important things, like converting souls and building up the Body of Christ, we fail in our efforts. Not that our efforts are not well-intentioned, but there is something missing from those efforts.
But what a good thing it is if we can find grace to ask the same question as the disciples: “Why…?” How necessary it is, when we fail, to ask ‘What has gone wrong?’ It is important to ask why we, individually as Christians, and corporately as the Church, are often powerless and unsuccessful in our efforts to evangelize and bring souls to Christ. It is vital to make a right diagnosis when we come to the Lord in humility and confession, and ask Him, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
It is easy to do things like feeding the hungry, visit those in prison or in the hospital, clothe the naked, etc. But these works alone do not convert souls and bring people into the Body of Christ, the Church. There is so much more to it than just doing good works and fighting for social justice.
There were three reasons why the disciples failed in their efforts to cast the demon out of the boy. The first was their lack of faith. In St. Matthew’s account of the story, Jesus tells His disciples they could not cast out the devil, “Because you have so little faith” (Matthew 17:20). The disciples did not have the faith to believe that Jesus could operate through them and give deliverance. We often fail for the same reason. We doubt the ability of Jesus to put forth His power and work through us.
The second reason was for a lack of prayer. Certain situations require urgent and persistent prayer, and if this is deficient there will be a deficiency of power. Evidently, the disciples had not prayed enough, they were powerless. How challenging when our own ministry may be powerless and fruitless because we fail to pray because we fail to make God a part of our work. Here we must ask ourselves the question: “Am I doing God’s work or am I doing this for myself, to satisfy my own ego and build a reputation for myself in the eyes of others?”
The third reason the disciples failed was for a lack of fasting. Fasting denotes such an intensity of desire and purpose that we are ready to put aside legitimate things to seek God’s face and get His blessing. It may mean denying ourselves secondary things for a time so that spiritual power may be released and souls who are in bondage may be delivered and converted to God. Fasting purifies and strengthens us both spiritually and physically that we may do the work of God with a clearer mind and heart.
When we rid ourselves of worldly desires and preoccupations, we allow God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, to fill us with Himself so that God’s Word and power can work freely in and through us. This, subsequently, makes our work God’s work. We merely serve as God’s instrument and vessel.
If the disciples had been in touch with the Lord by faith, prayer, and fasting He would have performed this miracle through them. It is His power that is at work anyway. We have no power in and of ourselves to heal anyone. It is Christ that works through us.
How far are we willing to make a voluntary denial of things, which of themselves are quite lawful and legitimate, in order that God’s face may be sought in earnest and persistent prayer and that souls may be delivered from terrible bondage? Faith, prayer, and fasting will achieve victory even under the desperate conditions we face today. But let us conclude on a note of victory; let us witness the putting forth of God’s power through the gracious ministry of our Lord Jesus.