v. 14 And when he came to his disciples - This refers to the nine apostles, and possibly more, whom Jesus had left when he took Peter, James and John to witness his transfiguration. While we ordinarily read "a great multitude", the text in the original reads something like "much crowd", and so emphasizes not so much a specific quantity of people but is more qualitative, indicating the degree of pressure, confusion and chaos that this great crowd was exerting upon the disciples. We read also that scribes were questioning them.
About what were they questioning the disciples? This questioning likely had something to do with questioning of doctrine, a kind of interrogation to test the interpretation which the disciples gave to certain texts, an interrogation concerning their positions on various doctrinal matters, and so forth. This is an extremely fascinating text. We read later in this same chapter that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection but that hte disciples did not understand what he meant by this. So aside from being virtually illiterate and not nearly as articulate or well-versed in theology and scripture as the brilliant scribes, they didn't even really know how to explicate the role of their Messiah to the peoples.
Even educated, well-read and highly literate theologians and commentators are sensitive by disposition and therefore shaken by verbal disputes of a theological nature. How muchmore these apostles! I myself am very easily shaken and intimidated when accosted in person and it becomes very difficult for me, even with what I have read and studied, to accurately articulate my position. Indeed, neuroscience has demonstrated that certain hormones shut down our higher thinking mechanisms and activate instead our fight-or-flight response, so that we're more interested in running to safety, or proudly and contentiously attacking the aggressor rather than patiently and humbly articulating our position.
The teaching we ought to draw from this observation is radically dependence upon Christ in all things in general, but in this particular case, difficult apologetic disputes. Note that the disciples were before a crowd and were therefore clearly conscious that they were liable to be humiliated in the debate in light of their radically inferior knowledge and intelligence and lack of experience. Sometimes we have no other choice but to fall upon our knees and call out to Christ in debate. We ought never to rely finally upon our own intellect, and though we are commanded to give an answer to those who ask(1 Pet. 3:15) sometimes the only answer we are capable of giving is not going to be an intellectually satisfying one by the world's standards.
This may, and certainly will at times, incur the ridicule of disputants and onlookers, and we will be seen as simple-minded fundamentalists incapable of rational thought, or at least unwilling to engage in it. But this must not deter us from deferrence to our Lord and master. We are called to bear witness to and defend his truth, his righteousness, and faithfulness, to convict the heart through the preached word and the declared truth(preaching) of the word, not to articulate what the world would consider an intellectually satisfying mental model of the Christian faith.
What is particular fascinating here is the contrast between the two pericopae, of Christ's majesty, glory and strength, and of our human weakness. Peter, James and John have just witnessed Christ in his effulgent glory whereas the other 9 apostles are being interrogated by hostile scribes and accosted by an unruly crowd, unwilling to say much of anything. We learn moreover that the reason there was a dispute among the crowd was because the disciples were unable to cast out a demon. This must have radically compounded their doubt. Imagine the thoughts, fears and doubts going through their minds.
They had failed in casting out a demon, were surely being intellectually overwhelmed by the scribes, who were likely attempting to discredit their theology and their allegiance to Christ, when Jesus shows up just in time to save the day. We have certainly been in comparable situations where we believe we will drown and be utterly dismayed by a sea of doubts, fears and confusions when all of a sudden Christ in all his glory, simplicity, truth and faithfulness is experientially conveyed to our hearts and we are given rest. He immediately casts out our fears and confusion just as he did with this demon, and we realize that the only reason we had been subjected to and accosted by these doubts and fears and confusions was in order that he might come and save the day and be glorified among his elect.
Jesus makes his glorious appearance to the 9 disciples and asks the scribes what they are questioning the disciples about. The way the Greek preposition is conugated in "with/against/at them" indicates not mere dialogue but opposition and contentious speech. The scribes were challenging the poor disciples to theological debates for which they were not prepared at all. Perhaps the disciples had even been tempted to renounce their faith. Jesus had earlier in Mark been accused of casting out demons by the power of the devil, and perhaps this accusation was brought up again(see the use of the imperfect tense, with its continuous aspect, in Mark 3, where it is said of the Pharisees that they "had been saying" that Jesus had an unclean spirit."
Perhaps in light of their inability to cast out demons, they themselves were being charged as being in collusion with the Devil. Imagine the confusion and sorrow to which these apostles must have been subject! "See", the scribes perhaps had argued, "your master is no prophet but a devil, and you yourselves are heretics, under the wrath of God for having been drawn away to his wicked teaching", using a flurry of misquoted scripture texts to attempt to prove their point, which the disciples could in no way have any hope to answer. Imagine the doubts and the fears! What if he is a heretic and a false teacher! What if we have been led astray! Or perhaps he was simply accused of being a fraud and a charlatan. You cannot cast out demons! This falsifies your ministry! Jesus had cast out demons and used it as proof that the Kingdom of God was now upon them. Thus, these miracles functioned as signifiers whose purpose was precisely to legitimate the Messiah's ministry. And these disciples were now unable to reproduce these authenticating signs! See, you are frauds and your master is a fraud! Perhaps I was deluded about Christ's previous miracles?
Yet previously in the Transfiguration Jesus has demonstrated his glory, and a sharp contrasts is drawn between the power and glory of the Messiah, the Son of God, and the weakness and faithlessness of the disciples. Jesus comes just in the nick of time before they are swamped and overwhelmed by doubts. We are told that the complaint of the crowd is that a man had come to the disciples with his demon-possessed son and the disciples were unable to cast him out. When the father describes the control over his son, he uses language in the original that refers metaphorically to the forcible transportation of something from one place to another. The language used also emphasizes that it was not simply the case that the disciples did not know how to cast out the demon, but that they had inadequate strength or power to do so. The strength of the demon is thus emphasized in contrast with the weakness of the disciples.
Perhaps we have experienced this doubt in our own minds concerning sin. We experienced almost a kind of alien hand syndrome of the sort that Paul refers to in Romans 7:14-25. It feels as though we are being forced to sin, when it is actually our wills that cause us to sin. We choose to sin because we want to and we like to. We feel tossed to and fro and dashed on the rocks helplessly and involuntarily by our sin, forgetting that we must not try and cast out this demon of ours in our own strength but must rely upon the strength of Jesus. This is particularly emphasized by the Evangelist when Jesus tells the father to bring the son to him in order that he may cast it out. The pronoun is placed in the emphatic position, functioning as a contrast between the inability of the disciples and the superior power of Jesus. We must never try and cast out our demons in our own strength but must rely entirely upon the strength and power of Jesus.
Jesus refers to the generation as faithless (and in Matthew and Luke, twisted). In light of the combination of faithless and twisted we find elsewhere, we find the faith is never merely a matter of volitionally neutral cognitive assent. We are primarily passionate beings, whose intellects are the slaves of the passions. Wherever our passions lie, it is there that our intellects will take us. The proble of the disciples was that they had inadequate faith. They hardly even believed what they were saying. "Faith" is to be understood here not merely as belief or cognitive assent but as fidelity and faithfulness to God.
There was something wrong with the wills of the disciples. The reason they were unable to carry out the work was because of their depravity, not their inability to confute the Scribes in a theological debate. The word translated "twisted" or "crooked" in Matthew and Luke harks to the Old Testament notion of "iniquity." Iniquity is one of the many words for sin, and rather than being a bare synonym, it has a unique semantic nuance all its own. It properly refers to the psychological, existential and relational effects of sin on the human person. The same root is used for a woman giving birth and has the idea of being twisted or wrenched out of shape. We thus see that belief is never a matter of mere intellect, but of will. it is never the case that we cannot believe or trust God, no matter how much it may at times feel like that, but that we will not trust God, and willfully refuse his grace.
When the child is brought to Jesus, it freaks out and causes the child to fall into fits. We must expect this sort of reaction from our own sinful nature when we attempt to do battle with it. Battling our sin goes radically contrary to our nature. We will see much of ourselves oftentimes wretch at and revolt against the holy presence of God when we attempt to face it head on. I have personally literally experienced physical spasms and nausea and vomiting in attempting to resist my sin and submit my will to the Lord Jesus. We in our own strength, as we see in the example of the apostles, are not able to cast out this demon in our own strength. We must flee to Christ, to submit ourselves to his body in the form of the church, and beg him for the strength to overcome our sin. He is our sanctification(1 Cor. 1:30).
The boy's father asks Jesus: if any thing thou canst tdo to help, have compassion! The word translated "help" later evolved into the Latin "succurro", meaning literally to "run up", from which we get the English "succour." The originally Greek word means to run at a war-cry or a cry for assistance. It has reference to response to an emergency. We may think of Jesus sinking after walking for a moment on the water, and calling out to Jesus as one in an emergency and in immediate danger of drowning. We oftentimes feel this way in relation to our sin, and we indeed ought to, and to cry out to Jesus for rescue from this emergency. Yet we must never use a conditional clause as this man does, as though there is doubt as to whether or not Jesus can liberate his elect from bondage to their besetting sins.
Since God does not hear sinners, it is clear that, in spite of this man's defective faith, esus had compassion on the man and cast the demon from his son. He rebukes the man for his conditional clause. The man asks Jesus to help him be rid of his unbelief. In spite of the man's defective faith, Jesus is responsive to his request. We ought to never have faith in our faith, but rather have faith in Christ. Jesus demands from us a mustard seed of faith. Superior faith is paradoxically demonstrated in acknowledging its pitiful littleness and inadequacy and falling before Jesus and confessing its littleness and inadequacy, asking Jesus for the strength to overcome our obstacles rather than attempting to do so in our own strength, as though it were primarily our faith that enabled and empowered us.
The Coptic and Arabic manuscripts paraphrase the repetition "if thou canst" as something like "what is this yyou are saying, 'if thou canst'", indicating that Jesus is repeating the conditional clause of the faithless father in disbelief and indignation at his faithlessness. What makes us able to do anything by faith is Christ's vicarious strength given to us, by whom we are able to do all things. The reason we are able to do anything by faith is not because of a positive mental attitude by which we believe in ourselves, but because the object of our faith is an omnipotent savior.