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CHAPTER 9:14-29

THE DEMONIAC BOY

PETER soon had striking evidence that it would not have been “good” for them to linger too long upon the mountain. And our Lord was recalled with painful abruptness from the glories of transfiguration to the skepticism of scribes, the failure and shame of disciples, and the triumph of the powers of evil.

To the Twelve He had explicitly given authority over devils, and even the Seventy, venturing by faith to cast them out, had told Him of their success with joy. But now, in the sorrow and fear of these latter days, deprived of their Master and of their own foremost three, oppressed with gloomy forebodings, and infected with the worldliness which fails to pray, the nine had striven in vain. It is the only distinct repulse recorded, and the scribes attacked them keenly. Where was their Master at this crisis? Did not they profess equally to have the necessary power? Here was a test, and some failed, and the others did not present themselves. We can imagine the miserable scene, contrasting piteously with what passed on the summit of the hill. And in the center was an agonized father and a tortured lad.

At this moment the crowds, profoundly moved, rushed to meet the Lord, and on seeing Him, became aware that failure was at an end. Perhaps the exceeding brightness lingered still upon His face; perhaps it was but the unearthly and victorious calm of His consecration, visible in His mien; what is certain is that they were greatly amazed, and ran to Him and did homage.

Jesus at once challenged a renewal of the attack which had been too much for His apostles. “What question ye with them?” But awe has fallen upon the scribes also, and misery is left to tell its own tale. Their attack by preference upon the disciples is very natural, and it by no means stands alone. They did not ask Him, but His followers, why He ate and drank with sinners, nor whether He paid the half-shekel (Mark 2:16; Matt 17:24). When they did complain to the Master Himself, it was commonly of some fault in His disciples: Why do Thy disciples fast not? Why do they do on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful? Why do they eat with defiled hands? (Mark 2:18, 24; 7:5). Their censures of Himself were usually muttered or silent murmurings, which He discerned, as when He forgave the sins of the palsied man; when the Pharisee marveled that He had not washed His hands; when He accepted the homage of the sinful woman, and again when He spoke her pardon (Mark 2:8; Luke 11:38; 7:39–49). When He healed the woman whom a spirit of infirmity had bent down for eighteen years, the ruler of the synagogue spoke to the people, without venturing to address Jesus. (Luke 13:14).

It is important to observe such indications, unobtrusive, and related by various evangelists, of the majesty and impressiveness which surrounded our Lord, and awed even His bitter foes.

The silence is broken by an unhappy father, who had been the center of the group, but whom the abrupt movement to meet Jesus has merged in the crowd again. The case of his son is among those which prove that demoniacal possession did not imply the exceptional guilt of its victims, for though still young, he has suffered long. The demon which afflicts him is dumb; it works in the guise of epilepsy, and as a disease it is affected by the changes of the moon; a malicious design is visible in frequent falls into fire and water, to destroy him. The father had sought Jesus with him, and since He was absent had appealed to His followers, but in vain. Some consequent injury to his own faith, clearly implied in what follows, may possibly be detected already, in the absence of any further petition, and in the cold epithet, “Teacher,” which he employs.

Even as an evidence the answer of Jesus is remarkable, being such as human ingenuity would not have invented, nor the legendary spirit have conceived. It would have seemed natural that He should hasten to vindicate His claims and expose the folly of the scribes, or else have reproached His followers for the failure which had compromised Him.

But the scribes were entirely set aside from the moment when the Good Physician was invoked by a bleeding heart. Yet the physical trouble is dealt with deliberately, not in haste, as by one whose mastery is assured. The passing shadow which has fallen on His cause only concerns Him as a part of the heavy spiritual burden which oppresses Him, which this terrible scene so vividly exhibits.

For the true importance of His words is this, that they reveal sufferings which are too often forgotten, and which few are pure enough even to comprehend. The prevalent evil weighed upon Him. And here the visible power of Satan, the hostility of the scribes, the failure of His own, the suspense and agitation of the crowd, all breathed the spirit of that evil age, alien and harsh to Him as an infected atmosphere. He blames none more than others; it is the “generation,” so faithless and perverse, which forces Him to exclaim: “How long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you?” It is the cry of the pain of Jesus. It bids us to consider Him Who endured such contradiction of sinners, who were even sinners against Himself. So that the distress of Jesus was not that of a mere eye-witness of evil or sufferer by it. His priesthood established a closer and more agonizing connection between our Lord and the sins which tortured Him.

Do the words startle us, with the suggestion of a limit to the forbearance of Jesus, well-nigh reached? There was such a limit. The work of His messenger had been required, lest His coming should be to smite the world. His mind was the mind of God, and it is written, Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.

Now if Jesus looked forward to shame and anguish with natural shrinking, we here perceive another aspect in which His coming Baptism of Blood was viewed, and we discover why He was straitened until it was accomplished. There is an intimate connection between this verse and His saying in St. John, “If ye loved Me, ye would rejoice, because I go unto My Father.”

But swiftly the mind of Jesus recurs to the misery which awaits help; and He bids them bring the child to Him. Now the sweet influence of His presence would have soothed and mitigated any mere disease. It is to such influence that skeptical writers are wont to turn for an explanation, such as it is, of the works He wrought. But it was the reverse in cases of possession. There a wild sense of antagonism and revolt was wont to show itself. And we might learn that this was something more than epilepsy, even were it left doubtful otherwise, by the outburst of Satanic rage. When he saw Him, straightway the spirit convulsed him grievously, and he fell wallowing and foaming. Yet Jesus is neither hurried nor agitated. In not one of His miracles does precipitation, or mere impulse, mingle with His grave and self-contained compassion. He will question the scribes while the man with a withered hand awaits His help. He will rebuke the disciples before quelling the storm. At Nain He will touch the bier and arrest the bearers. When He feeds the multitude, He will first command a search for loaves. He will stand still and call Bartimaeus to Him. He will evoke, even by seeming harshness, the faith of the woman of Canaan. He will have the stone rolled away from the sepulcher of Lazarus. When He Himself rises, the grave-clothes are found folded up, and the napkin which bound His head laid in a place by itself, the last tribute of mortals to His mortality not being flung contemptuously aside. All His miracles are authenticated by the stamp of the same character—serene, not in haste nor tardy, since He saw the end from the beginning. In this case delay is necessary, to arouse the father, if only by interrogation, from his dull disappointment and hopelessness. He asks therefore “How long time is it since this came upon him?” and the answer shows that he was now at least a stripling, for he had suffered ever since he was a child. Then the unhappy man is swept away by his emotions: as he tells their sorrows, and thinks what a wretched life or miserable death lies before his son he bursts into a passionate appeal. If Thou canst do anything, do this. Let pity for such misery, for the misery of father as well as child, evoke all Thy power to save. The form is more disrespectful than the substance of his cry; its very vehemence is evidence that some hope is working in his breast; and there is more real trust in its wild urgency than in many a reverential and carefully weighed prayer.

Yet how much rashness, self-assertion, and willfulness (which is really unbelief) were mingled with his germinant faith and needed rebuke. Therefore Christ responded with his own word: “If thou canst: thou sayest it to Me, but I retort the condition upon thyself: with thee are indeed the issues of thine own application, for all things are possible to him that believeth.”

This answer is in two respects important. There was a time when popular religion dealt too much with internal experience and attainment. But perhaps there are schools among us now which verge upon the opposite extreme. Faith and love are generally strongest when they forget themselves, and do not say “I am faithful and loving,” but “Christ is trustworthy, Christ is adorable.” This is true, and these virtues are becoming artificial, and so false, as soon as they grow self-complacent. Yet we should give at least enough attention to our own attainments to warn us of our deficiencies. And wherever we find a want of blessedness, we may seek for the reason within ourselves. Many a one is led to doubt whether Christ “can do anything” practical for him, since private prayer and public ordinances help him little, and his temptations continue to prevail, whose true need is to be roused up sharply to the consciousness that it is not Christ who has failed; it is he himself: his faith is dim, his grasp on his Lord is half hearted, he is straitened in his own affections. Our personal experiences should never teach us confidence, but they may often serve to humble and warn us.

This answer also impresses upon us the dignity of Him who speaks. Failure had already come through the spiritual defects of His disciples, but for Him, though “meek and lowly of heart,” no such danger is even contemplated. No appeal to Him can be frustrated except through fault of the suppliant, since all things are possible to him that believeth.

Now faith is in itself nothing, and may even be pernicious; all its effect depends upon the object. Trust reposed in a friend avails or misleads according to his love and his resources; trust in a traitor is ruinous, and ruinous in proportion to its energy. And since trust in Jesus is omnipotent, Who and what is He?

The word pierces like a two-edged sword, and reveals to the agitated father the conflict, the impurity of his heart. Unbelief is there, and of himself he cannot conquer it. Yet is he not entirely unbelieving, else what drew him thither? What impulse led to that passionate recital of his griefs, that over-daring cry of anguish? And what is now this burning sense within him of a great and inspiring Presence, which urges him to a bolder appeal for a miracle yet more spiritual and Divine, a cry well directed to the Author and Finisher of our faith? Never was medicine better justified by its operation upon disease, than the treatment which converted a too-importunate clamor for bodily relief into a contrite prayer for grace. “I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” The same sense of mixed imperfect and yet real trust should exist in every one of us, or else our belief being perfect should be irresistible in the moral sphere, and in the physical world so resigned, so confident in the Love which governs, as never to be conscious of any gnawing importunate desire. And from the same sense of need, the same cry for help should spring.

Miraculous legends have gathered around the lives of many good and gracious men within Christendom and outside it. But they cannot claim to weigh against the history of Jesus, until at least one example can be produced of such direct spiritual action, so profound, penetrating and effectual, inextricably interwoven in the tissue of any fable.

All this time the agitation of the people had increased. A multitude was rushing forward, whose excitement would do more to distract the father's mind than further delay to help him. And Jesus, even in the midst of His treatment of souls, was not blind to such practical considerations, or to the influence of circumstances. Unlike modern dealers in sensation, He can never be shown to have aimed at religious excitement, while it was His custom to discourage it. Therefore He now rebuked the unclean spirit in the lad, addressing it directly speaking as a superior. “Thou deaf and dumb spirit, I command thee, come out of him,” and adding, with explicitness which was due perhaps to the obstinate ferocity of “this kind,” or perhaps was intended to help the father's lingering unbelief, “enter no more into him.” The evil being obeys, yet proves his reluctance by screaming and convulsing his victim for the last time, so that he, though healed, lies utterly prostrate, and “the more part said, He is dead.” It was a fearful exhibition of the disappointed malice of the pit. But it only calls forth another display of the power and love of Jesus, Who will not leave the sufferer to a gradual recovery, nor speak, as to the fiend, in words of mere authority, but reaches forth His benign hand, and raises him, restored. Here we discover the same heart which provided that the daughter of Jairus should have food, and delivered her son to the widow of Nain, and was first to remind others that Lazarus was encumbered by his grave-clothes. The good works of Jesus were not melodramatic marvels for stage effect: they were the natural acts of supernatural power and love.

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