Jesus Heals a Boy with an Unclean Spirit, Epilepsy (Mark 9:14-29)

Analysis and Commentary

Jesus Heals a Boy
Jesus Heals a Boy.
  • 14 And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them. 15 And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him. 16 And he asked the scribes, What question ye with them? 17 And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; 18 And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not.
  • 19 He answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me. 20 And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. 21 And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. 22 And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.
  • 23 Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. 24 And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. 25 When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. 26 And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead.
  • 27 But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose. 28 And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out? 29 And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.
  • Compare: Matthew 17:14-21; Luke 9:37-43

Jesus on Epilepsy and Faith

In this interesting scene, Jesus manages to arrive just in the nick of time to save the day. Apparently while he was on the mountaintop with the apostles Peter, and James, and John, other disciples of his remained behind to deal with the crowds come to see Jesus and benefit from his abilities. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they were doing a good job.

In chapter 6, Jesus gave his apostles “authority over unclean spirits.” After they went out, they are recorded as having “cast out many devils.” So what is the problem here? Why can’t they do exactly as Jesus has showed they can do? Apparently, the problem lies with the “faithlessness” of the people: lacking sufficient faith, they prevent the miracle of healing from occurring.

This problem has affected Jesus in the past — again, in chapter 6, he himself was unable to heal people around his home because they lacked sufficient faith. Here, however, is the first time that such a lack has affected Jesus’ disciples. It’s odd how Jesus is able to perform the miracle despite the disciples’ failure. After all, if a lack of faith prevents such miracles from happening, and we know that that has happened to Jesus in the past, then why is he able to perform the miracle?

In the past Jesus has performed exorcisms, casting out unclean spirits. This particular case appears to be an instance of epilepsy — hardly the psychological problems that Jesus may have dealt with previously. This creates a theological problem because it presents us with God who cures medical disorders based upon the “faith” of those involved.

What sort of God cannot cure a physical ailment simply because people in the crowd are skeptical? Why should a child have to continue to suffer from epilepsy so long as his father is doubtful? Scenes like this provide justification for modern-day faith healers who claim that failures on their part can be attributed directly to a lack of faith in the part of those who want to be healed, thus placing upon them the burden that their disabilities and illnesses are entirely their fault.

In the story about Jesus healing a boy suffering from an “unclean spirit,” we see what appears to be Jesus rejecting debate, questioning, and intellectual disputation. According to the Oxford Annotated Bible, Jesus’ statement that potent faith comes from “prayer and fasting” is to be contrasted with the argumentative attitude on display in verse 14. This places religious behavior like prayer and fasting well above intellectual behavior like philosophizing and debating. The reference to “prayer and fasting,” by the way, is limited almost entirely to the King James Version — nearly every other translation just has “prayer.”

Some Christians have argued that the disciples’ failure to heal the boy was partly due to the fact that they debated the matter with others rather than simply giving themselves entirely over to faith and acting on that basis. Imagine if doctors today were to behave in a similar manner.

These problems only matter if we insist on reading the story literally. If we treat this as an actual healing of an actual person suffering from a physical ailment, then neither Jesus nor God comes away looking very good. If it is just a legend that's supposed to be about spiritual ailments, things look different.

Arguably, the tale here is supposed to help people understand that when they are suffering spiritually, then sufficient faith in God (attained through things like prayer and fasting) can relieve their suffering and bring them peace. This would have been important for Mark’s own community. If they continue in their unbelief, however, then they will continue to suffer — and it isn’t just their own unbelief which is important. If they are in a community of unbelievers, then that will impact others because it will be more difficult for them to hold on to their faith as well.