Jesus cures a demonized boy.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 February

Mark 9.14-29, Matthew 17.14-21, Luke 9.37-42.

First time I was ever taught this story, it was called “Jesus heals an epileptic.” At the time I didn’t know what epilepsy was; now I do. So I object to that description every time Christians bring it up. This isn’t epilepsy whatsoever. The boy was possessed by an evil spirit.

Matthew and Luke go so far as to identify it as a demon, a “guardian spirit” ancient pagans believed in, much like Christians believe in guardian angels. If you were sick, sometimes pagan “physicians” (really witch doctors) would try to put demons in you, hoping they’d root out the illness. Instead these critters would take you over and make your life miserable. That‘s why there were way more cases of demonization in Jesus’s day than in ours: Our physicians don’t do that. (I don’t know about your favorite “spiritual healers” though.)

Christians have misidentified this boy as epileptic for centuries… making life miserable for epileptics all that time, and even today. People have accused ’em of being demonized, and in some cases hurt them badly, on the grounds they were trying to hurt the demons within. In so doing, they never bothered to treat the very real medical condition. They simply treated ’em like sinners—much like that one blind guy Jesus cured.

Of course now that we know epilepsy isn’t demonization, we’ve often got it wrong in the other direction: Plenty of people now misdiagnose demonized people as mentally ill. There is an actual difference, y’know, and you can usually tell when you treat the patient: Treatment and meds work on the mentally ill. But they won’t work on a demon; only exorcism will.

Here’s the other big problem with the way Christians usually spin this story. Most Christians presume demonization is what happens when people dabble in evil, invite evil spirits into their lives, and the spirits take ’em over. So we tend to figure it’s their own fault for getting possessed; they dabbled in evil, and got what’s coming to them. But this is a story of a little boy. Did this little boy legitimately get what’s coming to him?—was his possession his fault?

Again, no. The boy could’ve been ill, so his dad and mom took him to the local witch doctor, who figured a demon might be helpful. And pagans today regularly make the same errors: They’ve learned some incantations to invite “angels” and “good spirits” to watch over their kids, but they’ve never been taught that some spirits aren’t good and benevolent. They’re kinda horrified to discover otherwise… unless of course the evil spirits can keep ’em deceived. But once found out, the evil spirits can turn mighty nasty—as we regularly see in Jesus’s exorcism stories.

The faith-deficient students.

After Jesus and his students had come down from the hill where he was transfigured, they got an eyeful of this mess:

Mark 9.14-18 KWL
14 Coming to his students, Jesus saw many crowds with them, and scribes arguing with them.
15 Next all the crowds, seeing Jesus, were startled. Running, they greeted him.
16 Jesus asked them, “Why are you arguing with them?”
17 One of the crowd answered Jesus, “Teacher, I bring my son, who has a speechless spirit, to you.
18 Whenever the spirit takes him, it tears at him, and he foams and grinds his teeth and shrivels.
I told your students so they’d throw it out, and they couldn’t.”
Matthew 17.14-16 KWL
14 Coming to the crowd, a person came to Jesus, kneeling before him,
15 saying, “Master, have mercy on my son!—he’s ‘moonstruck.’
He has an evil spirit: Often he falls into fire, often into water.
16 I brought him to your students, and they couldn’t cure him.”
Luke 9.37-40 KWL
37 This happened the next day, as they were coming down the hill:
Many crowds met Jesus and his students.
38 Look, a man from the crowd cried out, saying, “Teacher,
I beg you to look upon my son, for he’s my only-begotten,
39 and look: A spirit takes him over and cries out suddenly,
and tears him up with foaming, and hardly ever leaves him, crushing him.
40 I begged your students to throw it out, and they couldn’t.”

A man had a demonized boy, and brought him to Jesus to be cured. Not finding Jesus, he went to Jesus’s students, whom Jesus had taught to do exorcisms; he’d had them do it before. So you’d think they’d be up to the task… but it appears they actually weren’t. Mark describes the melée Jesus walked into as having “scribes arguing with them,” Mk 9.14 ’cause more than likely these bible scholars were telling Jesus’s kids, “You’re doing it wrong!” And they weren’t wrong, ’cause the demon didn’t come out.

Since Jesus’s students were so inept, how much faith do you think the boy’s father had in Jesus at this point? Pretty much the same level of faith as pagans have in Jesus whenever his current followers—us Christians—can’t seem to do anything either.

The boy’s father presented his problem to Jesus: He had a boy who was σεληνιάζεται/seliniádzete, literally “moonstruck,” although more often we go with the Latin-based synonym “lunatic,” like the KJV. No, ancient superstitions about the moon have nothing to do with it: The boy acted mad. But the father knew the cause: There was an evil spirit in him. A “speechless spirit,” Mk 9.17 which didn’t let the boy talk, though it did let him scream. Lk 9.39 It may have mimicked the symptoms of epilepsy—the better to be misdiagnosed as disease instead of possession—but the father knew better.

The crowds weren’t expecting Jesus to show up, so they were startled by his appearance. Mk 9.15 No doubt the students were relieved, ’cause now Jesus could sort this out—much as we Christians are hoping Jesus will sort out all our problems once he returns, and this way we won’t have to sort ’em out ourselves, like he wants.

Jesus’s response reveals he fully expected his students to be able to handle this situation without him:

Mark 9.19 KWL
In reply Jesus told them, “You untrustworthy kids!
How long will I be with you? How long will I support you? Bring him to me.”
Matthew 17.17 KWL
In reply Jesus said, “You untrustworthy, distorted kids!
How long will I be with you? How long will I support you? Bring him to me here.”
Luke 9.41 KWL
In reply Jesus said, “You untrustworthy, distorted kids!
How long will I be with you and support you? Bring your son here to me.”

Jesus’s complaint regularly gets misinterpreted, because Christians assume the “faithless and perverse generation” Lk 9.41 KJV refers to his generation—his Judean and Galilean contemporaries, all the Israelis of his day. It does not. Whenever Jesus refers to the γενεὰ/gheneá, KJV “generation,” he means the generation he taught, not the generation he is. Outside of Sabbath services, rabbis didn’t disciple students their own age; they taught children and teenagers. Jesus was 15 to 20 years older than his students, and in that culture, it made him old enough to be their dad. They were of another generation. They were kids; hence my translation “kids.”

As for being faithless and perverse: Jesus’s kids didn’t lack faith altogether. They did try to cure the boy! But you recall Jesus regularly described them as having little faith, deficient faith. Ἄπιστος/ápistos can mean either “no faith” or “not faithful,” and in this context it makes more sense to recognize Jesus is calling ’em untrustworthy. ’Cause they weren’t trustworthy: They should’ve easily been able to drive out that demon, as easily as Jesus did it.

So “How long will I be with you and support you?” Lk 9.41 is not a cry of frustration towards Israel: “You unbelievers are working my last nerve, and I’m not gonna put up with it much longer.” It’s a warning to his students: “You realize in a very short time, I’m no longer gonna be around to bail you out? I’m teaching you to do this yourselves. It’s the whole point of your discipleship!”

The faith-deficient father.

Mark includes this bit about the boy’s father further explaining the situation to Jesus.

Mark 9.20-24 KWL
20 They brought the son to Jesus, and seeing Jesus,
the spirit next tore at the son, and falling to the ground he rolled, foaming.
21 Jesus asked his father, “How long has it been like this with him?” He said, “From childhood.
22 Often it even throws him into fire and water, so it can destroy him.
But if you can, help us!—have compassion on us!”
23 Jesus told him, “If you can. For believers, everything’s doable!”
24 Crying out, the boy’s father next said, “I believe!—help my unbelief.”

Many a modern translation has Jesus’s discussion with the boy’s father sound more like this:

Mark 9.22-23 NLT
22B “Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”
23A “What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked.

They interpret Jesus throwing the man’s “If you can” right back at him. Some translations even make Jesus sound like he’s mocking the man, or responding with sarcasm. And yeah, Jesus isn’t beyond pushing our buttons when he’s trying to make a point. But that’s not what this is.

The father’s statement is ἀλλ᾿ εἴ τι δύνῃ/all’ ei ti dýni, “but if you might work any power,” and Jesus’s response is τὸ εἰ δύνῃ/to ei dýni, “The [issue is] if you might work any power.” This Greek word to makes a pretty big difference: Jesus didn’t say precisely the same thing back to him, but brought up a new issue. He wasn’t smacking the man down for not trusting him enough, but informing the man God offers him the power—really all believers the power—to kick out such demons ourselves.

Hence the Good News Translation’s much better rendering,

Mark 9.23 GNT
“Yes,” said Jesus, “if you yourself can! Everything is possible for the person who has faith.”

Why do we Christians keep misinterpreting Jesus with such a bad, faultfinding attitude? Projection. We have a bad attitude, and presume Jesus thinks like we do. We figure this poor guy is part of a “faithless generation” Jesus was ranting against. At the same time we’re kinda irritated about our own faithless generation, with its apathetic Christians and unbelieving pagans. We’re tired of them, and assume Jesus was just as frustrated and angry with everyone—and taking it out on this poor suffering father.

We must never interpret Jesus apart from kindness. If God ever looks unkind, he’s deliberately trying to startle people into paying attention to him or their circumstances. But in this story, Jesus isn’t being unkind! He only looks unkind when we make him unkind, and force him into a mould of our own making. But that isn’t his motive at all. He wanted to encourage this father towards greater faith. Which worked, ’cause the guy‘s response was, “I believe!—help my unbelief.”

The Holy Spirit helps us grow faith. We don’t automatically believe the impossible. We might try to psyche ourselves into believing impossible things, but that’s foolishness, and the result is Christians who believe in stuff Jesus never taught, never promised, and won’t do. We must only believe what Jesus legitimately teaches, and try it, and see whether it’s so, and see what he’ll empower us to do. And when we pray for greater faith, our prayer should be precisely what this father prayed: “Help my unbelief.” The Spirit does!

Keep praying and fasting.

Of course Jesus cured the boy. You think he wouldn’t?

Mark 9.25-27 KWL
25 Jesus, seeing the crowd running to him, rebuked the speechless spirit,
telling it, “Speechless, deaf spirit, I order you: Get out of him. You may never enter him again.”
26 Crying out and tearing him some more, it came out.
The boy became like the dead; hence many were saying that he died.
27 Jesus, grasping his hand, lifted him up and raised him.
Matthew 17.18 KWL
Jesus rebuked the demon, and threw the demon out of him,
and the child was cured from that hour onward.
Luke 9.42 KWL
As the boy was still coming to Jesus, the demon broke him, and he convulsed.
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and cured the boy, and gave him back to his father.

Later, privately, Jesus’s students came to him to ask him about why they couldn’t cure the boy. Rightly so, it bothered them. Bothered ’em in a way it doesn’t bother a lot of Christians nowadays, because too many of us figure, “Well of course Jesus could cure the boy and the disciples couldn’t; he’s God and they’re not.” True… but the Holy Spirit is God too, and since we have the Holy Spirit in us, shouldn’t he be able to defeat any and every evil spirit? Why on earth should any Spirit-empowered believer be unable to perform an exorcism? Especially since Jesus himself taught his apostles how to do it—and already had them do it.

Jesus’s explanation differs between Mark and Matthew.

Mark 9.28-29 KWL
28 Entering the house, Jesus’s students privately asked him this: “Why couldn’t we throw it out?”
29 Jesus told them, “This kind can’t be thrown out unless you’re praying and fasting.”
Matthew 17.19-20 KWL
19 Then the students, coming to Jesus privately, said, “How come we couldn’t throw it out?”
20 Jesus told them, “Because of your insufficient trust in God:
Amen! I promise you when you have faith like a mustard seed, you’ll tell this hill, ‘Move from here to there!
And it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

In Mark it’s because the students should’ve been praying and fasting, and in Matthew it’s because they didn’t trust God enough.

To a number of Christians this looks like a bible difficulty: Two different gospels, two different answers. Which makes ’em nuts, because they don’t want there to be two different answers; either Jesus’s students lacked faith or they lacked discipline. At some point in the third or fourth century, Christians simply started adding Mark 9.29 to the end of Matthew’s version of the story, like the Textus Receptus has it:

Matthew 17.21 KWL
[But this kind doesn’t come out unless you’re praying and fasting.”]

Which alters the meaning of Matthew: The students shoulda had more faith… but even if they had more faith, this is a tricky sort of demon, so faith itself wouldn’ta been enough.

Which is the right answer? Well, both. (Without altering either gospel to eliminate any “difficulty,” thank you very much.) Jesus’s students regularly had deficient faith, so of course that topic needed to come up: They needed to stop thinking, “This is way too big for me; let’s have Jesus do it instead.” They needed to step up and fight this devil themselves. Like Jesus said, he wasn’t always gonna be around; and now that he’s currently with his Father, we need to fight such beings—and win!—without him doing the exorcisms for us. We can do it. So let’s do it.

And at the same time, fighting evil spirits isn’t a task for irreligious Christians. Yeah, there are plenty of irreligious Christians who suddenly get all “Not today, Satan!” whenever they encounter any difficulty… but you’ve seen how utterly sloppy they are at following Jesus in the rest of their daily lives. If you never resist temptation, you’re no spiritual warrior! If you seldom pray, never fast, and have no self-control to speak of, you’re not gonna throw out a thing. The devils own you. Who are you to tell ’em where to go?

The holistic Christian lifestyle has to include both practices: A deep trust in God, and the regular spiritual discipline of good religion. We shouldn’t just be practicing both things simply so we can defeat evil spirits; we should do it out of love for God. But y’know, if we practice these things… we totally can defeat evil spirits. It’s a nice side effect.