Mark 9:20

They brought him to Jesus; but no sooner did the boy see him than the spirit threw him into convulsions; and he fell on the ground, and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

sure enough
reports of disorganization
are true

just a glance
at people’s lives
falling apart

false promises
deepen everyone’s despair
finally revealed

it’s worse
in reality than in report
forever fires

There is a sense of distance in all that has gone before. Someone, somewhere in the crowd, claimed the source of the hubbub as a failure of the disciples to heal a child. All of the above can be seen with noisy milling about and shouting back and forth as opposed to a quiet inquiry and measured response.

If so there would not have been any interaction between Jesus and the child in question. Now we have a first contact.

We don’t know the dynamics of these “evil” spirits and their connection with one another that would lead them to know the jig is up when Jesus comes on the scene. Even if the child was not made mute, this spirit may have learned from reports of earlier healings that there is not much use in trying to call Jesus out or interact or bargain with him. The 100th Monkey model can be used negatively as well as positively.

This repeat of the child’s problem varies slightly from 9:18. This report does not include grinding teeth and withering/stiffening. We might well chalk this up to the details a parent might cascade out in presenting in an emergency room to emphasize the importance of being seen, while the clinician boils it down to the clearest diagnosis. A fit (Falling and rolling) and foaming are sufficient to bring an intervention.

These are obvious signs of not being able to engage the world around in an expected manner. Whether this is from a personal point of view in response to an internal state or a communal sign of a canary in a mine responding to a sickness within the society can be debated for a long time.

Mark is working back from a crowd having a fit and foaming at the mouth to a person and, in both cases, revealing the impotence of any who care—a double silencing.

Mark 9:19

“Faithless generation!” exclaimed Jesus. “How long must I be with you? How long must I have patience with you? Bring the boy to me.”

faith is a learnable skill
opportunity after opportunity
comes teaching and testing
what we truly trust as true
no matter what the situation suggests

faith is not currency
we play like a get-out-of-jail card
it grows from the past
pulled by a better tomorrow
out of a stuck presence

faith carries no warranty
if not completely satisfied
there is no appeal available
we can only invest the rest
until we give up trust and live

faith ebbs and flows
its presence clear then not so much
fickleness is built-in to faith
betrayal of trust too common
still we enter a next opportunity

It is helpful to put some additional language around the “answer” Jesus gives in order to have a fuller picture of his response. Is this also a sigh? An angry retort?

Additionally, does there need to be a larger break after the two frustration-based questions and the direction to bring the child to him. The word translated here as “bring” is the same as used elsewhere—the father had brought the child to the disciples or John’s head was brought, or seeds brought forth more? Is this a natural bringing forth or an ordered one?

In setting this response it needs noting that the “faithless generation” is not specifically oriented toward the disciples or crowd or parent. We are again noting both a human condition of not being aware and the reality of occupation that silences anything but compliance with a ramping up of violence.

External threats can open oneself to such a self-censorship or internal conflict that they freeze one in place. When all our excuses for not speaking up are finally recognized as faithless to our truth, we convulse or die.

How long will Jesus need to reveal a deeper reality than our typical social, political, and/or economic wilderness experience? Colloquially, “Until the cows come home!” or “Until hell freezes over!” (forgetting Dante’s frozen center of a lost paradise). Context is important to understand what it is that is believable.

Mark 9:18

and, wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth, and he is pining away. I asked your disciples to drive the spirit out, but they failed.”

here are the details
how life falls apart

power beyond our control
casts a shadow over us

we respond a-shivering
in its shaking cold grasp

with intense stammering
no swallowing foaming spittle

teeth grind our meaning
into nonsense bits of noise

finally centered in hell is darkness
we are frozen still

we came with hope now dashed
children dismissed turned away

whether they couldn’t or wouldn’t
your so-called healers are failures

How helpless the child!

How helpless the parent!

How helpless the disciples!

Not only helpless, but nigh on to hopeless!

The evocative word beyond simple description is ξηραίνω (xērainō, dry up, wither, grow rigid). This is the same word used back in 3:1 about a man with a withered hand.

In Mark repetition bears attending to. Since it is written to his readers there is opportunity here to reflect on what has dried up, withered, stiffened in our life. We may even be able to get back to the description of people who have relied on external power and developed a “stiff neck” or “hardened heart”.

Though not described in this detail, we may also remember Jairus’ daughter and the sense of helplessness that comes through that story. Or, some of the details may remind us of the Gerasene being full of power but unable to control it.

Of significance, LaVerdiere-249 recalls, “Jesus had sent the Twelve on mission with authority over unclean spirits (6:7). Summarizing their mission, the Gospel said that the Twelve drove out many demons (6:13).” So what has gone on here that their practice hasn’t borne fruit in this instance? This question is good ground for the breaking out of an argument. It doesn’t need the fleeting mention of the Scribes. It can be expected simply on the basis of different understandings among the 9 disciples left behind. A question still facing the church—What is our excuse that justifies our failure?

Mark 9:17

“Teacher,” answered a man in the crowd, “I brought my son to see you, as he has a spirit in him that makes him mute;

where have you been so long
my son is as important to me
as any religious leader’s daughter

I’ve traveled far not just waited
for you to come close to me
and where were you gone

my son my image my beloved
closes down to wilderness silence
a cold choking wind takes him away

I claim a diagnosis to soothe our minds
I demand a cure lest our hearts break
I will pay for this with my life

are we clear it is your reputation
that is on the line with inept disciples
now that you’re back don’t just stand there

A spirit that won’t brook any speaking not only has a personal aspect, as here, but a social one as well. Speech is never free, it always has a consequence.

The same hope that drives someone (mother? father?) to lead their young one to Jesus fills the whole crowd, silenced by the Romans, to see what happens here and then take it to the socio-political level as well.

This story about a child reminds us to look back at Jairus’ daughter. Those shut out of that scene are looking to get a closer peek about technique.

Ultimately there will be as much disappointment in this quest as in the previous one or at the later one with the youth in a tomb. Dealing with spirit is never able to be consolidated into a technique, it remains ever live (reading Jacques Ellul is helpful here).

Waetjen155 has a footnote that includes:

“This spirit appears to be different from the ‘unclean spirits’ or ‘demons.’ It does not cry out Jesus’ identity, as the others did. Unlike the others it may not be generated by institutional realities or systemic structures.

This opens us to seeing this story as more than a healing. The main character is the parent and may assist with the solution Jesus arrives at. As a child can reflect their parent, we could be dealing with that constriction of conscience that keeps us silent when ourselves or others are being harmed and we feel powerless.

Mark 9:16

“What are you arguing about with them?”Jesus asked.

a first sign of resolution
definition of where the rub is

can we even accept or restate
articulation of another’s experience

such mediation can get stoned
from both sides now

a first sign of power
finding a choice to arbitrate

right and wrong take second place
to extending a divine right to rule

every simple question is full
of nuance agenda conclusion

Is this the first question you would ask when coming into a contentious setting? How do you even get attention to ask this question in the midst of the crowd energy in seeing Jesus?

To whom did Jesus pose this clarifying question?

The commentators are all over the map on the focus of the question. The four most likely candidates are:

  1. The Disciples. The argument is that these are the ones Jesus is familiar with and he wants their input. This gives great power to the in-group as the setter-of-the-agenda. It is what is present in white privilege settings—those closest to the center of power keep their position by framing the argument in their favor.
  2. The Scribes. Here it is noted that a number of early manuscripts deliberately add “Jesus asked the Scribes”. Since we don’t have the earliest manuscripts, it has to be asked if this is an addition by a scribe or if it is a correction to a dropped word in a previous copying. But there is textual evidence of Scribes being the ones asked. It is also good form to ask the complainant what the issue is.
  3. The Crowd. Evidence for this will lie in the next verse when an individual from the crowd is the one who responds to the question.
  4. The Whole Scene—Disciples, Scribes, and Crowd. Remembering the excitement and movement of the crowd it will be difficult to sort out a particular component. We can imagine the ancient equivalent of a bull-horn being needed.

In the end, Mark doesn’t need a choice to be made about this detail. It is the question that is needed to set up the rest of the scene.

It may be that the response chosen reflects personality or temperament differences between commentators.

Mark 9:15

But, as soon as they saw Jesus, all the people, in great astonishment, ran up and greeted him.

so focused on the center of attention
it takes awhile to notice
we also have a peripheral vision
quietly signaling to us

arguments threats outrageous tweets
easily rise to take center stage
distracting and confusing everyone
participant and observer

slowly from the outside in
awareness of another way
surfaces from self-imposed darkness
turning any difference into win or die

and a fickle crowd shifts energy
as reinforcements for a losing side
promise an enlarged extended hubbub
its circus experience enhanced

Talk about changing dynamics! An argument between Scribes and Disciples is set by the side when a better show comes along.

In fact the welcome of the crowd is not just excitement for excitement’s sake (think TV game shows), but there being real awe, fear, joy at the unexpected presence of Jesus. This shift feels a bit like the difference between a cardboard cutout and a live person.

We have not been noting all the usages of euthus (immediately, BANG) along the way. As we start into the second half of Mark it is good to remember one of his most-used words. It reminds us of the kind of surprise we have yearning under our surface attempts at control of our situation. It took bright light and cloud voice to surprise Peter, James, and John on a mountain. Here it is a collective remembrance of times past when our expectations were taken off-guard.

Like Moses spending too much time on a mountain, it seemed like forever since Jesus and his three companions had left. It was almost as if time had stood still and now, with a lurch, caught up to itself. Disorientation and Hope teeter-tottered.

This is a good time to review Jesus’ interactions with crowds and assess what seems like his interaction with them. This will inform our own public engagements.

Here is a smattering of remembrances of ὄχλος (ochios, crowd) in Mark 2:13; 3:32; 4:1; 5:27; 6:34; 6:45; 7:14; 8:2; 8:34 and anticipation of next gatherings: 10:1; 11:18; 12:12; 14:43; and 15:8.

Mark 9:14

When they came to the other disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some teachers of the Law arguing with them.

remember your mountain
through all subsequences
to heal or not to heal
not a question

disappointment comes around
arguing to argue
compromises immune systems
no questions asked

transitions are difficult
tempted to give up
choice still abides
steady steadily steadied

The CEB that we have been using as a standard text has chosen here to name Jesus, Peter, James, and John rather than to leave it with a more literal translation of an implied and indefinite “they” which, in context, would refer back to those who came down the mountain. It is always tricky to know when to add a clarifying word and when to let the story flow.

An example of that flow is the lack of description of what the Scribes were arguing about. Whether it is a repeat of one of their previous bones-to-pick or a new tack, is not Mark’s concern here. The course is already set, suffering and death, increasing conflict is built in to this arc.

We are to understand that we are back to work with the learners, pupils, disciples. The tools are the usual ones of healing (specific event) and teaching (understanding).

Before getting into the story as such, it is helpful for a reader to pause and reflect on how they (better, “I”) react when seeing a negative encounter going on. Does that change whether we know participants on both sides or just one? What happens to my attention and energy? Does my fight-or-flight analyzer ratchet up? Does my truth-O-meter start finding projected arguments based on my expectation of being a mediator or judge? Does my mouth go dry or salivation kick in?

Whatever your usual markers are when anticipating participation in a tense setting, they are a helpful backdrop to best hear the unfolding of a story that continues from 9:1—“to see the presence of G*D active in the present”.

Mark 9:13

But I tell you that Elijah has come, and people have treated him just as they pleased, as scripture says of him.”

so many anonymous Elijahs
have returned with rainy day oil
only to have first been ignored
then put under house arrest

bored out of their mind
many an Elijah faded away
a mere ghost of themself
slumped in an empty chair

too expected to be seen
a sadly overlooked Elijah
prepares needed suffering
to clear established cataracts

Mark is not as explicit about relating Elijah with Baptizer John as is Matthew 17:13, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.”

Since there is no tradition about Elijah being mistreated when he returns to herald a “Great Day of Judgment” that will get everyone trod out of existence except for parents and children who are in accord with one another (Malachi 4), this verse seems to refer to the difficulties Elijah had with Ahab and Jezebel.

Elijah’s confrontation with power that was distracting and working against the common good of its day led to his being chased to exhaustion. Only at the last moment, while despondent and asking to die, was he fortified with angel cake and drink. This part of Elijah’s story fits with Jesus’ understanding of his suffering and death.

A difference is, Elijah heard a strange, still, small voice sending him into the wilderness to anoint other kings with oil (similar to John’s anointing with water on the other side of the Jordan) and Jesus’ death throes which will have silence instead of a “Who-sized” voice—“Why have you forsaken me? Where is my angel chef?”

In the scene at the cross (15:33–37) Elijah is back one more time through the mistaken hearing of the crowd. In some fashion, Jesus becomes Elijah, a witness against those whose power has gone to their head and will get a curse as Jesus’ death sets up a rationale for a Great Judgment to come.

Galston108 notes a progression: “The great thing about [Jesus’] death is his resurrection, and the great thing about his resurrection is that he is returning to judge the world, and the great things about his return is that it never happens, leaving the Church in charge.” How has the Church done with its “rituals of salvation”? Has it substituted “power” for “character development” and “spiritual maturity”?

Mark 9:12

“Elijah does indeed come first,” answered Jesus, “and re-establish everything; and does not scripture speak, with regard to the Son of Man, of his undergoing much suffering and being utterly despised?

before a restart
comes a restore
now we can deconstruct
code’s orderliness
into quanta

straight lines
give way to Euclid
an apple’s gravity
bends trees and seasons
in their time

even in their simplest
thoughtful experiment
blood is sweated
tears are wept
suffering for beauty

a cat in a box
seen in a mind’s eye
does and doesn’t shed
abundantly mysterious
practically perfect

To begin from the continuation of an affirmation of suffering and rejections—when looking at the way Elijah is presented in the scriptures Jesus would have known, there is no warrant for Elijah to be an Isaiahan Suffering Servant.

Neither the remembrance of the Elijah cycle (1 Kings 17:1 – 2 Kings 2:11) nor the assertion in Malachi 4:5–6 about his return suggest there is going to be any suffering by Elijah. LaVerdiere-245 says it concisely, “Elijah’s return was supposed to prepare the way for the Lord’s glorious coming, not for his death.”

The early tradition that equates Baptizer John with Elijah is more to the point here than previous writings about Elijah. In this way John comes first to restore (repent-and-trust good news) and sets the tone of Jesus’ first message.

This repent-and-trust model is one that Jesus returns with from his retreat to the wilderness. This process is used to signal a turning or restoration or metamorphosis.

Still this does not lie easy with Jesus as he used compassion as a Way to repentance and adds a picture of suffering as a result of compassion angering an indifferent world. Though it sounds as if the suffering brings restoration, it is a consequence of healing the gaps of life.

This is not an easy text in Mark as there are several ways to punctuate it. This is not dissimilar to the stanzas throughout this book where punctuation decisions need to be made by the reader. Marks’ difficult use of language and ideational constructs is more intentional than rustic. There is method in his madness that repetition assists.

For now we have an affirmation of restoration and an awareness that such does not come without a cost. Prepare to ante up.

Mark 9:11

“How is it,” they asked Jesus, “that our teachers of the Law say that Elijah has to come first?”

afraid of asking
my life and death question
I fall back
to inquire of others

why do they
when did that start
how do they
who do they think they are

once established
tradition is pervasive and tenacious
kudzu spreads
all is ordered through time

meaning is set
confirming signposts found
surprise dispatched
Elijah is everywhere

Thoughts move quickly in disciple’s brains. This may be why their teacher speaks of “monkey brain”.

The last we knew the Three agreed to not talk outside of their foursome and were wondering about resurrection. Almost immediately they jump back to a question about Elijah.

All manner of stories could arise out of this question. Among them is a return to Peter’s resistance to suffering and death. If Elijah hasn’t come, then maybe Jesus doesn’t have to continue his crazy talk.

We are always invited to remember prior connections. Back in verse 6:15 Herod and others speculated that Jesus might be Elijah. It is difficult to disconnect from cultural memes. Is this simply a circumlocution for a “Triumphant Messiah” that Jesus doesn’t agree to?

Another way of seeing how deeply rooted some religious ideas are is to look through the eyes of Myers109, “Despite having just been instructed by the voice from heaven to listen to Jesus, the three disciples are still preoccupied by the authority of the scribal class: Why do the scribes say…?”

Of course the Three are also trying to get absolute answers when a cognitive dissonance has set in. LaVerdiere-246 puts it this way. “The problem was quite simple. The disciples [along with religious leaders and the public] expected Elijah to come and prepare the Lord’s manifestation in glory, not his suffering and death.”

This same expectation of “manifestation in glory” continues to this day in Prosperity Gospel doctrine. In fact it presages a glory to come with the glory of wealth here on earth.