April 09, 2004
Mark 9

There are several classic stories packed into this chapter. First we have the Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John see Jesus transformed into dazzling white with Elijah and Moses. After Jesus goes back to normal, they have a puzzling conversation:

Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’

The study notes aren't very helpful here, saying this is "lacking any clear biblical referent." Earlier, they'd said that the return of Elijah was thought by some at the time to signal the end of an age, so perhaps this whole story signifies Elijah's "coming" (though suspiciously few people actually saw him). But I really can't figure out what "they did to him whatever they pleased" refers to. I'm not sure if "him" means Elijah or the Son of Man, and what point in time he's talking about (what they did to Elijah in his first incarnation? what they've already done to Jesus? what they're going to do to Jesus?).

But anyway. We move on to an unusually detailed exorcism story. A man's son is having seizures of some sort, and the disciples have tried and failed to heal him. Jesus, somewhat atypically, asks how long the son's been afflicted. Since childhood, he's told, and it's sometimes tried to kill him. The father says, "... if you are able to do anything, have pity on us." Jesus answers that all things can be done for one who believes, and the father returns with the famous line, "I believe; help my unbelief!"

It's one of those great lines because it seems contradictory, and yet it's so true. There are a lot of points on the continuum between believing and not believing, and the story sends the message that Jesus is willing to help you out even if you haven't fully arrived.

Jesus heals the boy, though it's traumatic. At first the son is so weakened the bystanders think he's dead. The disciples ask Jesus later why they couldn't cast out the demon. He answers, "This kind can come out only through prayer."

It's a puzzling answer. It implies that there are categories of demons and this was a particularly tough one. But it's also odd because there isn't any sign in the story of Jesus or the boy praying; Jesus just commands the spirit to leave, as usual. I suppose if anybody was praying it was the father, but it seems like everybody who asks Jesus for help "prays" in that fashion. And anyway, I thought all the healings involved prayer of some sort, in calling on God's help.

At any rate, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection again, and the group goes to a house to stay over. They have a very disjointed conversation that underlines the strung-together quality of the gospels, ranging from the disciples' argument over who's the greatest to the protection of children to the "if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off" litany. In the middle, though, there's an interesting and less well-known conversation where the disciples say somebody they don't know was doing healings in Jesus' name and they'd tried to stop him. Jesus answers:

Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

The second sentence is striking because it inverts the way I usually hear that sentiment: "You're with us or you're against us," "If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem", etc. That seems to be the attitude the disciples are taking, in suspecting anyone who isn't actively following Jesus as they are. But Jesus says no, anybody who's not fighting us is OK, and even little actions on our behalf count. Like the "help my unbelief" story, it seems to respect those who are somewhere in between. It's a different attitude than most revolutionaries take, and perhaps at the time Mark was written it was aimed at purists who were overly concerned with who's "in" and who's "out". Certainly every church has those.

Posted by Camassia at April 09, 2004 12:33 PM | TrackBack

I'm unsure of my source for this teaching, as I've been wide-reaching in my Christian walk, but I recall that St. John the Forerunner (aka the Baptist) was the "Elijah" of whom Jesus spoke. Thus, "whatever they pleased" was to cut off his head.

May you have a blessed Holy Saturday,

Posted by: Kizmet on April 10, 2004 05:34 AM

On Good Friday, I heard a lovely recitation of the entire The Gospel of Mark. (http://www.oldlog.com/StMark.htm) It was quite good, quite expertly done, and I appreciated the King James version, which I'd not heard since I was a lad.

One of the many thoughts I had when hearing "For he that is not against us is on our part" was more or less what you have stated, that it is an inversion of the with-us-or-against-us mentality.



Posted by: Troy on April 11, 2004 06:01 PM

In Matthew 11:14, Jesus says of John the Baptist, "And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come." They did to John whatever they pleased, which does not bode well for them -- or, I suppose, for Jesus either, when you think about it.

Jesus would not necessarily have to pray to drive out the stubbornest demon (I say "necessarily" because of course He prayed all the time anyway), but his disciples would. It is, perhaps, another sign that there's a bigger difference between them than teacher and disciple, that it's not simply a matter of them learning everything Jesus knows to catch up to Him as a spiritual master.

Posted by: Tom on April 12, 2004 09:51 AM

The full sense of Christ's statement is truly radical:
Anyone not actively opposing him is for him, by default. So only those actively choosing evil are condemned.

Posted by: Brian H on May 9, 2004 11:57 AM
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