In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus finds his disciples arguing with religious leaders about how to cast a demon out of a boy. Jesus, in exasperation, calls everyone there faithless. Then, after a brief exchange with the father, he heals the boy. Afterward, his disciples (having just returned from being sent out two by two with the power to cast out demons) ask why they couldn’t do it. Jesus tells them only prayer can cast this kind of demon out. And Mark moves on.
But what does this story teach us (besides that Jesus can be real sassy when he wants to be)? When we look closer, we see that this story revolves around what it means to have faith in Christ. This central tenant is something that we also see reflected within Martin Luther’s six chief parts of his Small Catechism.
Faith according to the Ten Commandments
To start, the story flashes us back to Moses’s descent from Mount Sinai. In Exodus 32, Moses came down the mountain, Ten Commandments in hand, to find chaos amongst the Israelites. While he was on Mount Sinai, the people turned away from the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt to worship a golden calf that Moses’ own brother, Aaron, made for them.
In Mark 9, Jesus (with Peter, James, and John) comes down from the mountain of his transfiguration to find a similar scene. As with their forefathers, idolatry and unbelief have run amuck among Jesus’ disciples, the religious leaders, and the crowd.
In both the fight with the scribes and their inability to cast out the demon, the disciples seem to have given up any hope in God. They may not be worshiping a physical golden calf, but they worship their knowledge and abilities, despite their obvious failure in this case.
For Luther and his Catechism, all the commandments can be summed up in the first: “You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This explanation reverberates throughout the rest of his explanations of the commandments; each one starts, “We should fear and love God so that…”
Faith in God is at the heart of the commandments, indeed at the heart of the Small Catechism. The lack of faith, or unbelief, is the chief sin from which all others spring. When we fail to fear, love, and trust in God, we fail to love our neighbor.
This is the sin of the disciples and the religious leaders: they are busy looking to themselves and arguing with each other. And caught in the middle is a desperate dad who cries out to Jesus from the crowd, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. I ask your disciples to drive out the spirit but they could not” (Mark 9:18-19).
When we fail to fear, love, and trust in God, we fail to love our neighbor.
Jesus’s exasperated reply (which you can almost feel) says as much when he calls them an unbelieving or faithless generation. And before we think too highly of ourselves: we too have been faithless and still struggle to fear, love, and trust in God above all things and so love our neighbor.
In both the exchange between Jesus and the father and in Jesus’s casting out of the evil spirit, we see four parts of the Catechism on display: communion, the Apostles’ Creed, confession, and baptism
Faith given in Holy Communion
In Luther’s teaching on Holy Communion, he emphasizes receiving the supper in a worthy manner: “Who receives this sacrament worthily? Answer: Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”
This worthy manner of having faith is captured in verses 20-23 of Mark 9. The crowd brings the boy to Jesus and the evil spirit throws him down into convulsions and he starts foaming at the mouth. Jesus, like the great physician he is, asks how long the boy has been like this. The father answers “From childhood.” Then the father pleads, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Sassy Jesus strikes back, “‘If you can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes.”
To receive the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus’ body and blood under the bread and wine in Holy Communion requires faith. Jesus’ body and blood are present in Holy Communion whether we believe it or not. Likewise, Jesus can heal this boy whether his father believes him or not. But he calls the father out for his lack of faith at this moment, and in turn, calls out his disciples, the religious leaders, and the crowd too.
Faith According to the Apostles’ Creed
Then we hear the father’s almost breathtaking reply to Jesus: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Luther captures the father’s sentiment in his teaching on the Apostles’ Creed. As the father’s confession is the center of this story, so too is the Apostles’ Creed the center of the Small Catechism, especially when we come to Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” What does this mean? Luther explains: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord or come to him.” In other words, we confess what this father confesses. We confess: I believe that I cannot believe.
Luther’s explanation goes on, “but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith is not our work, but what God works in us by his Holy Spirit. We do not come to believe in the saving work of God, through his Son, Jesus Christ by our own efforts. The Holy Spirit calls us by the good news of the Gospel, that our sins are freely forgiven on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us.
The father’s confession, like all confessions, is a double confession. When we confess that we believe in God and his saving work for us in Jesus, we also confess a reality about ourselves as sinful people and about God as our gracious forgiver. In the same breath, the father confesses his faith and his chief sin, his lack of faith.
When we confess that we believe in God and his saving work for us in Jesus, we also confess a reality about ourselves as sinful people and about God as our gracious forgiver.
Faith given in Confession
Luther explains confession of sin in the Small Catechism this way: “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness.” As the words of absolution are spoken and deliver the forgiveness they proclaim, so too does Jesus speak and command the demon to leave.
Faith given in Baptism
We cannot help but see the parallels to baptism and the Small Catechism’s teaching in Mark 9 as well. Just as Jesus speaks and the demon leaves, it is God’s word added to the water that makes baptism what it is and gives baptism its power.
Jesus raises the boy up from what many in the crowd thought was a state of death; the Small Catechism reminds us that baptism drowns the old sinner within us and raises us up to new life in Christ.
Faith According to the Lord’s Prayer
This story also shows us what this new life in Christ looks like. Later on, the disciples ask Jesus privately why they failed so spectacularly. Jesus replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Jesus’ answer is a bit mysterious until we realize that prayer, as taught by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer and expounded upon by Luther in the Small Catechism, is faith enacted in its proper direction, toward God.
The disciples failed to do what the boy’s father did. His confession was also a prayer. By calling out his lack of faith, Jesus turns the father away from himself and to the one who can truly help him.
In praying to God, especially in the Lord’s Prayer, we do the same. To pray to God as our Heavenly Father is to call upon God in faith, not only as divine and therefore able to do all we ask, but also to call upon him as our good and gracious Father. He is eager to hear our prayers and give us all that we need, as he has given himself entirely to us in Christ.
My favorite quote regarding Luther’s Small Catechism comes from theologian Robert Kolb, who said, “The catechism is not really learned until life strikes.” The Small Catechism’s chief concern is teaching the basics of the Bible. Namely, what does it look like if we believe in the forgiveness of sins? Or said another way, what does it mean to have faith in Jesus?
Faith in Jesus is at the core of Mark 9:14-29. We see the negative realities of life strike a father and his son. Life strikes us too. And in those moments of wavering and doubt, we, like the boy’s father, can cry out and confess to our heavenly Father, I believe; help my unbelief!
In those moments when you’re wrestling with faith and God feels distant, remember, you cannot wrestle with something that is far away. So take heart: God is near and he is here for you.
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