4. Death and Failure
Before we get to Part 5, where the hope is (and, unfortunately, the portion I may not get to for a while), there are two other ways that this frenetic spirit seems to manifest in this story:
25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:25-28, NRSV)
So much happens so quickly here. Jesus exorcises the demon, but since the disciples had failed in the same task, and because the father has likely seen others make the same attempt, the terrible convulsion that follows may not have seemed any different than past experiences. But then the boy seems “like a corpse,” and they believe him dead. One of our greatest anxieties pokes his head into the story. (I say one of because I once heard Jerry Seinfeld reference a study that indicated people were more afraid of public speaking than death, suggesting that if at a funeral we’d rather be the one in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy.)
The specter of death seems to drive so much of our behavior. I’ve read we often spend more in medical care in the last months of a person’s life than in their entire life to that point. Poet Dylan Thomas wrote, as his father lay dying, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In Act 3 of Hamlet, Shakespeare gives its titular character the following lines, reflecting on the fear of death:
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
While some people strong in faith have, perhaps, faced death well(1), our own mortality seems a universal anxiety that we struggle with from time to time…
And so, too, is the specter of failure. We idolize success, and often look down upon failure. So, when the disciples ask Jesus about why he could cast out this spirit and they could not, they are struggling with their own failure.
It’s important to note that earlier in the Gospel of Mark the disciples were not only given authority and power to act out demons (Mark 3:13-15; 6:7), but they actually have some success!
13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:13, NRSV)
But now they are faced with the question; why, when something worked before, did it not work now? Why did they fail?
Sadly, I think too many of our churches seem to be asking the same question in some form or other these days…
We are so afraid of failure that sometimes it immobilizes us from trying. At least in the disciples’ defense, they made some attempt at casting out this demon, unsuccessful though they may have been. What have we left undone, untried, or un-risked because we feared failure?
(1) There’s an article at Seedbed about how members of my “tribe” once faced death with perhaps more contentment and dignity than we do today.