20 February 2006

Risking against the impossible

7th Week OT (M): James 3.13-18; Mark 9.14-29
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!
Not a very impressive exorcism. Great show before the main event though: foaming at the mouth, gnashing of teeth, flailing about. But not a very impressive exorcism. A simple command made in faith through prayer, a few more jerks and shouts, and, “It came out.” Done. No twisty head, no spewing split-pea soup, no cryptic messages pressed against the flesh from inside the boy’s body, no rattling off quotes from long-forgotten texts in longer-forgotten languages. Not impressive at all. Boring, in fact.

I wonder why Jesus bothered. He had a great crowd gathered. According to Mark the crowd was growing by the second. Jesus has time for a few loud supplications to the Father, time for a couple of florid thanksgivings and elaborate praises. He even had time for a quick garment-rending and maybe a dramatic fall to his knees (if he hurried). He had more than enough time to tap up the drama, to milk the crowd, to show off and make a point. But he didn’t. Instead, upon seeing the rapidly growing crowd, he concluded the real drama of this scene and cast out the demon tormenting the boy. What was the real drama? The Father’s struggle with belief and unbelief.

You can almost see the distress on the father’s face. There’s torment there and love and a sort of dreadful hope, the kind of hope that one needs to feel in order to keep going, but at the same time the kind that is often broken against the impossible, too often made into a lie by the improbable. Just imagine that barely above a whisper, the father, with great reluctance and equally powerful expectation, says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And then there is that long moment between giving his hope words, the long wait between expressing his trust in the power of a stranger and the stranger’s answer, “’If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Is it relief? Or joy? Or more desperation? The father cries out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Wise man. He understands that his unbelief is at the root of his often dashed hope. And he understands that it is his belief that will give that hope healing power.

“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom.” James could be writing about the father of the demon possessed boy. The drama of his admission of faithfulness, of belief, to Jesus (I do believe!) and then his plea for help, his admission of faithlessness, of unbelief, (Help my unbelief!) is wisdom. This is an act of true humility, a confession of total trust now and a confession of debilitating doubt then, a historic doubt that daily killed his hope. The fruit of his righteous belief sows peace for himself and his son.

The boy’s father makes a humble admission in wisdom: “I trust you, heal my distrust.” And Jesus works with this prayer to cast out the demon. Like this father’s faith, our faith is never about quantity, about having “enough faith.” We don’t “have faith” in the way that we “have money.” Faith is the habit of trusting God to do what He says He will do. Our faith, our habit of trust in God, can be measured in depth, strength, endurance, or sincerity, but never quantity. Nor will we often find our faith on stage, at the center of a drama, and so publicly tested. But there is in us a virtue, a habit of being, that makes it possible for us to reach out to God and say without fear, “I believe, Lord!” and confess without fear, “Help my unbelief!” This is wisdom from above, full of mercy and good fruits.

The drama of our faith is the risk we take when we hope against the impossible.

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