The story about Jesus rebuking the unclean spirit from a child and giving the child back to the parent is pretty small potatoes compared to all the rest that’s going on in Luke 9.
We read about Jesus commissioning the disciples, King Herod beginning his plot against Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. Peter makes his declaration about Jesus’ messiah-ship, and Jesus foretells his death and resurrection and declares that whoever wants to save life has to lose it. We witness the Transfiguration and the disciples’ puzzlement when Jesus tells them of his forthcoming betrayal. Jesus teaches that welcoming children in his name is the same as welcoming him, and a Samaritan village refuses to receive Jesus.
All of those big-potato items in that single chapter! And, oh yeah, that small-potato story about the concerned parent and the child with convulsions.
It all happened, according to Luke, on the day following the momentous occasion of the Transfiguration, during which Jesus kept company with Moses and Elijah on the top of a mountain and a divine voice again declared that Jesus was God’s own chosen Child, and everyone should listen to him.
Not surprisingly, a huge crowd found its way to Jesus when he came down from the mountain; everyone was clamoring for his attention.
Evidently, the parent in the story is just one among many who wants Jesus’ focus. The parent shouts out, probably also wildly waving his arms and hands, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, my only child.”
That must have caught Jesus’ attention, given the fact that he’d heard similar words about himself just the day before, from a voice that had the ring of divinity, a voice that seemed to be saying that the divine will for God’s community and God’s world rested on this chosen Child.
Jesus must have recognized that there was more at stake than just the health and well being of this child because this was the parent’s only child. The status and future of the immediate and extended family rested on this child. A demon-filled child would be treated as unclean and, therefore, ostracized by the whole community, prohibited from marrying and producing offspring, which in turn would eventually mean the loss of whatever land and possessions the family currently held. This parent, Jesus recognized, was desperate.
So Jesus invites the parent to describe the child’s condition, which is portrayed as follows: “All of a sudden, without warning, a spirit seizes the child and, all at once the child shrieks and goes into convulsions, foaming at the mouth; the spirit mauls the child unrelentingly.”
The parent adds: “I’ve already asked your disciples to cast out the demon, but they couldn’t do it.”
These were the same disciples that Jesus had commissioned with power and authority at the beginning of Luke 9 to take control of the demons and to cure diseases and to bring good news. And for a while at least that’s exactly what the disciples did. But evidently that power and authority had dissipated.
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Jesus looks to them and says, “You faithless and perverse generation.” And then mindful of what awaits him soon in Jerusalem he asks them, “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Turning to the parent, Jesus beckons the child, even while the demon possesses the child again, causing the child to fall to the ground in convulsions. Seeing this only child writhing on the ground, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, heals the child and gives the child back to the parent.
Actually, of course, Jesus is giving that child back to the family, immediate and extended, giving that once devil-possessed child back to the community, giving this only and chosen child back to God, now with the freedom to choose to do God’s will.
Luke closes the story by reporting that everyone in that huge crowd was “astounded at the greatness of God.”
The multiple themes included in this small-potatoes story turn out to be related to virtually every other part of Luke 9. But prominent among them has to be the inability of the disciples to do what Jesus had commissioned and given them the power and authority to do: to cast out demons and cure diseases and convey the good news about the reign of God.
I assume the same commission applies to disciples of Jesus today. So the question, of course, is whether we also are part of a “faithless and perverse generation” and whether, in exasperation, Jesus would still be asking us how much longer does he have to be with us and bear with us in our impotence, our ineffectiveness, our inability and seeming unwillingness to make something of the authority granted to us by him.
There certainly is no dearth of bodies possessed by demons and unclean spirits, no shortage of bodies in need of healing, no scarcity of bodies waiting to hear some good news.
Not just individual human bodies, but social bodies, economic bodies and political bodies that are possessed, literally possessed, by demons and unclean spirits. Figuratively, those social, economic and political bodies, like the child, are convulsing, writhing on the ground, foaming at the mouth.
If anything, we disciples of Jesus today have far greater power and authority than those first disciples, insofar as we find ourselves in democracies in which, supposedly, we the people rule. Why then do we not claim our individual and collective power, our political and social and economic power, but even more, the power that God grants us?
Perhaps it’s because we have lost that sense of purpose of giving back life and freedom and wholeness to demon-possessed individuals, demon-possessed institutions and demon-possessed social, economic and political systems.
If that’s the case, then – whether it’s small potatoes or those that come in large portions – we need to start using our God-given capacities for giving back on all sorts of fronts.
It just could be that through us many in that huge crowd will be “astounded at the greatness of God.”
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.