top of page

Mark 9:14-37

Lesson Focus: Greatness in the Kingdom of God is not like greatness in the world. God calls us to be servants of all.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that it is not necessarily our faith that saves us, but the faithfulness of Jesus to the way of the Father.

  2. Understand that trusting in our own abilities will only lead us to seek power in an un-Christlike way.

  3. Understand that leadership in the Kingdom of God involves selfless service of those who could never serve us back.

Catching up on the Story At the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain where they witness Jesus’ transfiguration. The transfiguration comes on the heels of Jesus informing his followers that he will soon have to suffer, die, and on the third day, raise from the dead.  Peter wants none of it and rebukes Jesus.  In response, Jesus tells his disciples that if they genuinely want to follow him, they must take up their cross, too.

The following three vignettes, beginning at verse 14, focus on the upside-down nature of power and authority in the Kingdom of God. The disciples have had a hard time keeping up with what Jesus is saying. Through their actions, side conversations, and questions, the disciples demonstrate that they are not yet ready to assume leadership in the mission to which God has called them. All is not lost, however, because Jesus is patient and faithful as he continues to reveal himself to his friends through his actions and continued teaching.

The Boy with the Spirit Jesus and the three disciples descend from their mountain top experience to find that their friends and a large crowd had gathered around a boy and his father. There is quite a commotion happening as the disciples are arguing with members of the crowd. Mark doesn’t tell us who is in the crowds. Religious leaders might be present, or perhaps there are a few around who have previously witnessed Jesus’ and the disciple’s abilities to heal and cast out demons. Regardless of the make-up of the crowd, the disturbance revolves around the disciple’s inability to cast a spirit out of this little boy.

The crowd rushes forward to meet Jesus and the others as soon as they notice that he’s returned to the group. Immediately, Jesus wants to know what the argument is about. A man speaks up to say, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

With our modern knowledge of the medical sciences, we might be inclined to believe that this boy doesn’t have an evil spirit at all but that he has epilepsy. Many common medical conditions of the day were attributed to the forces of spiritual evil in the world. For Mark’s story, it doesn’t matter what the boy’s actual condition is. What matters in this story is that the disciples have been unable to deal with the boy’s condition sufficiently.

Jesus responds with a lament, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” Calling his disciples a “faithless generation” echoes Moses’ reaction to the unfaithfulness of Israel. Toward the end of this passage, Mark will reveal to us why it is that Jesus speaks to his disciples this way.

The father brings his boy to Jesus, and in response to being in the presence of Jesus, the spirit that possessed the boy dashes him to the ground causing him to go into convulsions. Instead of acting to rectify the situation right away, Jesus wants to know how long this has been happening to the boy. It’s an odd question, but it seems to set up the subsequent exchange between the father and Jesus. The father confesses that it has been since the boy was young and that the spirit has tried to destroy the boy. The father then implores Jesus to do something about the spirit if he can.

Jesus’ response is fantastic. I imagine him throwing back his head in laughter as he says, “If you are able! -All things can be done for the one who believes.” Truly this boy’s father has no idea to whom he is speaking! If he only knew, he would not have asked if Jesus were able.

Or, maybe it was a matter of faith for the father cries out in response, “I believe; help my unbelief!” What a fantastic response. The father knows he does not believe but wants to for the sake of his son. I think I find myself in this father’s shoes more than I’d care to admit. I think that’s ok. While I’ve never faced a situation quite like this, there have been many times when I know the way that I should go or the way that God is calling me to, but I don’t entirely have the faith to believe that the path ahead is the one I want to follow. In those moments, I am forced to confess that while I believe, I still have unbelief.

The remarkable thing about this miracle is that it is neither the boy’s faith nor the father’s faith that casts out the demon. It is the faith of Jesus in the way of the Father, the way that will lead toward suffering and death. It is the faith that relies not on oneself but on God’s good and graceful nature to bring about healing and restoration, and even life from death. While we need to have faith, our faith is not what saves us; it is the faithfulness of God.

Then, Jesus rebukes the spirit and casts it out, never to return. After the crowd had dissipated and the disciples were alone with Jesus in the house, they wanted to know why they were unable to cast out this spirit? Jesus responds, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

Is Jesus implying that the disciples only needed to pray a bit more? I don’t think that’s it. One commentator I read thinks that Jesus is making a commentary on faith. Previously, the disciples had been sent out into the surrounding area to proclaim the good news, heal the sick, and cast out demons. It may be that, in this instance, the disciples are relying on their past success. They’ve cast out demons before, and they can do it again.[1] With this type of attitude, they have failed to rely on the power of God.

I wonder if sometimes we do the same thing? We’ve been successful in something because we had placed our trust and faith in God’s calling and leading. Or maybe we were open and vulnerable enough to allow God to work through us in a powerful way and great things happened. But now we think we can do it again. Thinking it’s a formula to be followed, we try the same things in the same order but with different results. Our failure is not because we have poor intentions but because we have had faith in ourselves, not in the God through whom all things are possible.

Who is the Greatest? In verse 30, Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers are stealthfully moving through Galilee because they did not want to be detected.  On the way, Jesus again tells them that he must suffer and die and rise again from the dead. Even after this subsequent warning about what the future holds, the disciples are dumbfounded, but they are too scared to ask what exactly Jesus means.

What they do hear loud and clear is that Jesus is going to die. And in those days, a follower of a teacher like Jesus would have assumed the role of teacher upon the teacher’s death. A legitimate question is, “Who will take Jesus’ place and lead the movement once he is gone?” Only the student that shows the most amount of intellect and promise can be chosen to be the leader. Which one of the disciples is the greatest?

Once they’ve reached Capernaum, Jesus questions his friends about what they were arguing along the way. The disciples are silent like recalcitrant teenagers who know they’re in the wrong but won’t confess to it. Mark tells us they were arguing about who would be the greatest. Jesus knows, though, and simply begins to tell them what leadership in the Kingdom of God looks like. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In other words, you must be like Jesus, who though he is God, left the comfort of heaven to become one of us, lowly humans, being so obedient to the steadfast love that is his nature, that he suffered and died in the greatest act of service the world has ever known.

Knowing that mere words would not be enough, Jesus enacts a parable, taking a child and putting it in their midst, going so far as to take it up into his arms. This act isn’t a very profound act to you and me, but for Jesus and the disciples, it would have been. Children were, quite literally, the least of these. They had no standing in society. They had no rights. He’s not pointing to their innocence, and he’s not counseling us to become like children.

With this lowly child who could do nothing for anyone in his arms, Jesus speaks again, “Whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

To do something in someone’s name is to do something as an anointed representative of that person. When we do something in someone else’s name, we do so not on our authority or our power, but on the authority and power of the person whose name we represent. That takes us back to the exorcism story. The disciples tried to cast the boy’s demon out on their own merits and authority, not Jesus’. Here, however, we are charged with lowering ourselves in service to those who cannot serve us back.

So What? The culture around us is fully convinced that leadership in the Kingdom of God is about being first. Often, getting to be first in charge takes using others for your own purposes or only serving those who can benefit you somehow.  Sadly, over the years, the church has sought to operate this way.

As much as we might not like it, if we want to be great in the Kingdom of God, we must serve the least of all, offering what we have to those who cannot pay us back or do anything in return for us. This is the true nature of the Kingdom of God.

I think we have to go back to the exorcism story we looked at first. We find that the disciples because they were trusting in their own authority, were unable to help the boy. We said, however, that it was Jesus’ faithfulness to the way of God that proved decisive.

Indeed, it is Jesus’ faithfulness to the way of the Kingdom of God that proves effective, not just in the healing of the boy but in the salvation and healing of all things.

Verses 30-32 are the lens through which we read both the story before it and the one following. True power and true and faithful leadership is found not in trusting in oneself but in surrendering to the will and way of the Father.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why can’t the disciples cast out the boy’s evil spirit?

  2. Why does Jesus call his followers a “faithless generation” and wonder out loud how long he might have to put up with them?

  3. Jesus tells the boy’s father that “all things can be done for those who believe.” The father’s response is a bit puzzling, “I believe; help my unbelief.” What do you think the man means by that? Does he believe or not believe? Justify your answer.

  4. Jesus proceeded to cast the evil spirit out of the boy, even though we never get a firm affirmation that the boy or his father truly believed. What might that say about how Jesus works in the world?

  5. Immediately after this episode, Mark tells us that Jesus again tells his disciples that he must suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. Why does Jesus once again announce what is going to happen? How might it relate to the story we just read?

  6. Jesus and his followers finally make it to their destination in Capernaum. The disciples had been arguing on the way, and Jesus would like to know about what they were arguing. The disciples refuse to answer. So, Jesus assumes the position of a teacher and sits down, proclaiming, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” What does Jesus mean? Did Jesus embody this “first must be last” ideal? If so, how? If not, what makes you think that?

  7. Jesus scoops up a small child and places the child in his lap to demonstrate what he means. He proclaims that whoever welcomes a child (who had little or no rights or value in Jesus’ context) welcomes Jesus and the one who sent Jesus. What is Jesus expressing here? How is Jesus’ action here connected with being the last of all and a servant of all?

  8. Looking back over the passage we read today, how are all three sections connected? Are there verses that are the key to understanding the whole passage? If so, what are they, and why do you think that?

  9. What might Jesus be calling us to do in light of these three stories?

[1] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, John T. Carroll, and M. Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 276.