Monday, 7th Week of Ordinary Time: Mark 9:14-29
Today’s reading was that great one from St. Mark where Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the mountain of the Transfiguration to find their disciples in a bit of a ruckus with the scribes. As I read and listened, it was one of those times when the reality of the actual Word of God springing into our lives was evident. Every sentence struck me as being loaded with import.
The crowds are “utterly amazed” when they see Jesus after his transfiguration. But we get no time to dwell on that piece of revelation because the old law of the scribes is once again challenging the new charism of the spirit. Off we go, back to his ministry! Jesus asks about the nature of their argument and “someone from the crowd” answers that he brought his possessed son to be cured but the disciples were unable to do it. This seems like a non-sequitur to me – was that really the argument the scribes were having? I tend to think from evidence elsewhere that they are claiming, as usual, that the disciples (and Jesus) have no authority to teach and drive out spirits because they don’t follow the law to the very letter. They’re probably accusing them of blasphemy.
But the text continues without further discussion of the scribes. Jesus responds with a lament: “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him to me.” His exasperation is clear. It’s almost jarring (for me, at least) because we honor the Transfiguration to such an extent that I’m imagining this white-as-snow figure of Christ fairly floating down the mountain, radiating love, having been face-to-face with the Father, and these words of complaint don’t seem to fit. It’s a great reminder not to get complacent with images and notions (especially romantic or emotional ones) about who the Lord is. We really can’t fathom.
When the man explains about his son’s possession, he finishes with what seems to be a request based in an appropriate stance towards God: “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Shouldn’t we ask for compassion and help? But Jesus pounces upon the first part of his appeal: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” His exasperation continues, it seems. It’s as if he’s saying “can’t you all see who I am?” Then, Mark gives us one of the best lines in the gospels: “the boy’s father cried out, ‘I do believe, help my unbelief!’” We should all have this tattooed on our bodies somewhere. If that’s not the human condition, I don’t know what is. We are so weak in faith, that even our tentative belief must be bolstered by a plea for help with our basic struggle to believe.
Bishop Robert Barron’s daily gospel reflection picks up on this problem of faith. He writes, “Don’t think of faith so much first in propositional form—the things that I believe—but rather in psychological or spiritual form. Faith is an attitude of trust in the God who is always holding out new possibilities to us.” I really like thinking of faith as an “attitude of trust.”
Barron’s words remind me of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who writes in Introduction to Christianity, “For to believe as a Christian means in fact entrusting oneself to the meaning that upholds me and the world; taking it as the firm ground on which I can stand fearlessly” (73). I love his construction of faith as the firm ground, the thing that I stand on, that upholds me. He has a wonderfully large understanding of “meaning” in his book as going far beyond “knowledge.” He writes: “[To believe] means affirming that the meaning we do not make but can only receive is already granted to us so that we have only to take it and entrust ourselves to it” (73). Again, trust (not knowledge) becomes the operative function when it comes to faith. I guess this is what Jesus bemoans when he points out the conditional aspect of the man’s plea; the “if you can” part betrays a lack of trust.
One other thing strikes me about this wonderfully rich gospel reading. The boy is possessed by a “mute and deaf spirit.” The significance must be noted. After Jesus drives out the spirit and heals the boy, his disciples ask him in private why they were not able to drive out the spirit. Jesus answers: “This kind can only come out through prayer.” My first thoughts are, “Oh, no, now we need an evil spirit compendium and a degree in demonology to do the good work of God in the world.” It just seems to be a weird qualification – how could the disciples, or we for that matter, distinguish between types of spirits and what is needed to drive them out? But that’s not what Christ’s message is during his ministry. It’s not magic or the arcane arts. The important thing he says is “through prayer.” What is prayer other than the verbalization of our faith, our trust in God, in order to praise him, thank him, and intercess for others? There is something important about speech, about the word, verbalization – which is faith proclaimed – that becomes an action in its own right. It’s no coincidence that this is a “mute and deaf spirit”: it clarifies the problem with not proclaiming faith, with not hearing the Word. Yes, here is the Word of God made flesh – as true of a testament to the power of logos in our world as there can be – reminding us that it’s not enough to have faith, but to put that faith into action through our own words and prayers.
What a great reading for me as I contemplate the lay Dominican vocation. This order of preachers – what does it mean? What significance might it have for me? Is it about me being called to write and preach about God? Is there something that fundamentally fits with God’s call to us all? Today’s gospel seems to affirm these thoughts.