Get the picture. A distraught father whose son was possessed by a demon brought his boy to Jesus’ disciples (Mark 9:14-29). Under the demon’s influence, the son often threw himself into fire or water to destroy himself. From his childhood he had been in this condition, and nothing was changing. We have to believe the father had sought for years to find any solution to his boy’s tragic condition. Any caring father would have done the same.
The father must have heard that Jesus (and apparently his disciples) had power to heal. In desperation, he brought his son to Jesus’ disciples – and the tragic words of a defeated father speaking to Jesus echo loudly from the pages of the Scripture: “So I asked Your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn’t.”
“But they couldn’t.” It is hard to find more tragic words about God’s followers when hurting people turn to them for help. God’s power was available to the disciples, but they somehow missed it. They had previously dealt successfully with demons (Mark 6:12-13), but not this time. In fact, his disciples were both faithless (v. 19) and prayerless (v. 29) even as they confronted the spirit that controlled the man’s son. We can only hope that Jesus’ words – “You unbelieving generation! How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” — pierced them, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
Sometime later, Jesus retreated with his disciples and taught them about his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection (Mark 9:30-32). Perhaps not surprisingly, the disciples did not fully understand what he was teaching. He had previously predicted his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31-33), and Peter had aggressively rebuked him for such teaching. Their leader didn’t “get it” before, and now the whole group still didn’t fully get it.
Here’s what is amazing, though. In the very next passage, these same disciples were debating over who was the greatest:
“When He was in the house, He asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest.” (Mark 9:33-34)
Say what? The disciples likely were clinging to a hope that Jesus would be a political king offering them a cabinet seat, but their misunderstanding only magnifies their arrogance. Cast out a demon? They couldn’t do it. Comprehend Jesus’ teaching about his death? They failed. Understand the nature of Jesus’ kingdom? Not yet. Willingly follow Christ’s model of service? Not even close.
And these men were arguing over who is the greatest in a kingdom they didn’t even understand? Yep.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. We are not always that much different. Sometimes we love our positions of power in the church even when we know we lack the power of God in our own lives. We strive for teaching positions without recognizing our own unwillingness to learn. Lesson after repeated lesson, we still don’t get it. Our pride keeps us from admitting our lack of understanding even while our powerlessness keeps us from being effective. In all of our supposed greatness, God help us if we come face-to-face with a boy possessed by a demon.
Look then at the striking contrast Jesus next paints. Over against his arrogant, failing disciples is Jesus lovingly taking a child into his arms (Mark 9:35-36). To understand this picture, we need to know that first-century little ones were deemed less than full persons, given no status or rights. While often portrayed as innocent, they were also considered weak, vulnerable, and dependent. No wonder, then, that Jesus’ disciples at times tried to drive bothersome children from their Master’s presence (Mark 10:13).
Jesus’ illustrations utilizing children, though, were twofold. First, his followers are to willingly welcome those who are like children – those who are weak, needy, dependent, and helpless (Mark 9:37). The world may cast them aside, but Christ-followers cannot.
Second, Jesus’ followers are to be like children (Mark 10:13-16). With the simple humility and unwavering faith of a child, we come to him as helpless little ones trusting him for life.
God’s children—including leaders—are needy people who welcome other needy people. In his work, rank and prominence carry no weight. When we get that right, we’ll recognize that “greatness” no longer matters.
Adapted from Chuck Lawless, Nobodies for Jesus (2014, Rainer Publishing)