Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Jesus, teacher of the possible

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Nasruddin was walking in the bazaar with a large group of followers. Whatever Nasruddin did, his followers immediately copied. Every few steps Nasruddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling “Hu Hu Hu!”. So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing.

One of the merchants quietly asked him: “What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?”

“I have become a Sufi Sheikh,” replied Nasruddin. “These are my Murids [spiritual seekers]; I am helping them reach enlightenment!”

“How do you know when they reach enlightenment?”

“That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!

There is freedom in the ability to laugh at oneself. Nasruddin had this freedom. Unfortunately, it’s not something you’ll find in most “spiritual” people.

Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:17-31) brings us into the midst of a turbulent scene. A whole village is in an uproar, with recriminations and blame all around. After an amazing mountain-top experience that Jesus shared with three of his disciples, Jesus comes down from the mountain into this village where the other disciples – the ones who didn’t go up the mountain with Jesus – were incapable to heal an epileptic boy.

We usually focus on the father and the boy, other times we focus on the disciples, but rarely do we focus on the village, the social context in which this miracle took place. This is unfortunate, because the social setting is always important in the activities of Jesus.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This echoes God’s lament at the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt:

“How long will this people despise me?” (Numbers 14:11)

“How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me?” (Num 14:27)

This raises a serious question: Is there a connection between the boy’s condition and the faithless generation? “How long has he had this?” Jesus asks. Since childhood, the father answers. Of course the Gospel writer attributes the boy’s condition to a “dumb spirit”. This is normal in a society that didn’t have medical terminology. Clearly from our perspective we say that this boy suffered from epileptic seizures. But is there a deeper spiritual message?

Does this child’s silence typify for us what happens in a society that is faithless? In such a society, there are few options available: You conform, or you get out, or you keep quiet. I’m not saying this is the reason for the boy’s silence and epileptic attacks. But I am saying that this miracle story has many levels of meaning. Perhaps not all of these levels were intended by the Gospel writer, but we as readers of the Gospel in the 21st century bring our own awareness to the miracle story. As this is the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent every year, I have had the opportunity to preach on this Gospel passage 28 times! So over the years I have been able to focus on many levels of meaning.

The central episode is the exchange between Jesus and the father: “If you can, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help me in my unbelief!” This contrasts with the presumptuous attitude and arrogant self-confidence of the disciples. The father is honest. Notice he said, “Help me in my unbelief” – not “Help my unbelief,” as in all major translations. Πιστεύω· βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ. The dative requires something like “in my unbelief.”

This is a healthy response, the kind that Jesus always looked for – a response that opens new awareness. I can imagine this man getting out of the suffocating society of the village. Very often enlightenment comes to those who get out, as Nasruddin joked. Get out of what? Perhaps get out of the village. But, more importantly, get out of resignation. Get out of the “impossible” trap. Get out into the wide open spaces of discipleship. The most liberating experience is to follow Jesus. And not drop out like Nasruddin’s followers. The enlightenment Jesus brings is the life of the possible. With him everything is possible.

The above was given in expanded sermon form. But the delivery of the sermon was not satisfactory, so no audio file is included.

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