Tucked away in the exorcism story following the Transfiguration lurks a moment of Messianic candour. Briefly we glimpse Jesus’ frustration with his disciples. Their failure to heal a man’s demonized son and the resultant confusion and debate leads to Jesus’ description of them as "the unbelieving generation". Matthew in his account of this scene (17:17) notes that Jesus adds to this description the word "perverse", a generation that deliberately misunderstands and is therefore morally depraved. These are harsh words.
Presumably it is this set of attitudes (unbelief and perversity) that causes Jesus to exclaim:
How long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up (anexomai) with you?(vs.19)
This combination of rhetorical questions arguably displays a different side of Jesus. We get the sense that for Jesus the incarnation at times represents a considerable trial, something that he has to endure. He wishes it was over and struggles with the need to ‘put up with’ these people.
What would it have been like to have the power to raise the dead, command the forces of nature, and control legions of demons, but be compelled in love to avoid coercion in bringing people to trust him? How difficult must it have been to present the logic of his messianic authority day after day, only to have the religious leaders, as well as his most intimate followers, reject it, deliberately misinterpret it, or fail to grasp it? And when they did seem to make some progress in faith, how frustrating must it have been to see them fail and regress.
In this specific passage the apostles are faced with a familiar problem. During their special commission they had exercised Jesus’ authority to cast out demons (6:7-12, 30). They knew what needed to be done. But for some reason their application of the technique in this case was failing miserably. Mark says that they did not have the strength (9:18; cf. 5:4). Whether this was a particularly powerful demon (note verse 29 "this kind") or whether the disciples had forgotten their dependence upon God, Jesus analyzes their failure as a problem of prayer (vs. 29).
When Jesus asks how much longer he will have to put up with these disciples as part of that generation (Matthew 17:20 makes clear he refers to the disciples), the word he selects is unusual. Mark only uses it once in his Gospel. It has the sense of ‘bear with’. The Stoics used this word as part of their motto. Jesus may have had enough of their unbelief, but his commitment to them remains unwavering. He will give his life for them, serving them ultimately by pouring out his blood and with it writing a new covenant.
The remedy at this point in the story lies not in more teaching, but a clear demonstration of Jesus’ own power and authority as he reverses the failure of his disciples.
What leader has escaped similar frustrations with his or her followers? Consider Paul who "gladly put up with fools" (2 Corinthians 11:19) for Jesus’ sake. Not everyone who causes us frustration is a fool or should be considered a fool, of course. But every leader at some point must wrestle with the tensions involved in serving those who cause great exasperation. How did Jesus cope with this? He taught, he corrected, he loved, he goaded, he shared himself. They were like "sheep without a shepherd" and he must be their shepherd. This was God’s calling for him, though it might mean personal humiliation, pain, frustration and even death.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s ways today,
- identify those who frustrate you and make a point of praying for them and thanking God for them;
- define what it is about such people that causes your frustration and creatively discern ways to minister to them;
- thank God that in all of His frustrations with us, He has not given up or abandoned us as His projects.