daily biblical sermons

A life of prayer and fasting is essential for effective ministry
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, Seventh Week of the Year, February 24, 2020
James 3:13-18, Psalm 18, Mark 9:14-29

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“‘I [the father of a possessed boy] asked your [Jesus’] disciples to cast it [an evil spirit] out [of the boy], and they were not able.’ And he [Jesus] answered them, ‘O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? … All things are possible to him who believes’ [Jesus then casts out the evil spirit] … and when he [Jesus] had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting’” [Other ancient authorities omit and fasting] (Mark 9:18-19, 23b, 28-29 RSV).



This is an account of Jesus casting out a dumb spirit from a boy. “What distinguishes this narrative from the others [other exorcisms] is the previous failure of the disciples and their subsequent question about why they failed” (RT France, The Gospel of Mark (The New International Greek Testament Commentary; William B Eerdmans, 2002), page 361).



Jesus had been on the mount of transfiguration with three of his disciples, while below the other nine had gotten into a dispute with the scribes about their failure to cast out an evil spirit from a boy. While they were disputing together, Jesus suddenly came down from the mountain and saw them all arguing, and the people ran to him, and Jesus asked them what they were disputing about.



Then the father of the possessed boy explained that his son had a terrible dumb spirit that was destroying him and that he had asked Jesus’ disciples to cast it out, but they were unable to do so. At this point, Jesus cries out, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Mark 8:19). Who is Jesus referring to here, the scribes, the crowd, the boy’s father, or his own disciples? I think most likely he is frustrated with his own disciples’ lack of faith, prayer (and fasting) that weakened their ability to cast out this virulent evil spirit.



The disciples’ failure to cast out the spirit and their failure to sufficiently pray (and fast) is again the focus of a dialogue between the disciples and Jesus in a house privately, away from the crowd, when they ask him, “‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.’” (Mark 9:28-29).



So it seems that Jesus is exasperated by the failure of faith, prayer, (and fasting) in his own disciples. St. Matthew’s version understands Jesus’ exasperation as directed to his disciples’ lack of faith: “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith’” (Matthew 17:19-20).



Now you may want to ask why the words “and fasting” are included, because perhaps the translation you are reading does not contain these words. RT France notes that the words “and fasting” “are found in the vast majority of witnesses, both MS [manuscripts] and versional [ancient translations]” (The Gospel of Mark, page 361). However, he notes that two very important manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) lack the words “and fasting,” and so many modern translations leave them out of the text (Ibid., page 361). However the Revised Standard Version includes them in the text as does Greek text of Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft Stuttgart, 26th edition, 1979, 1988). These words (“and fasting”) are also included in the Received Text (the King James Version) and the Latin Vulgate.



Today’s gospel reading makes good sense if you include the words “and fasting” in the text and assume that they were in the original, for then Jesus is telling his disciples that they failed in their ministry to cast out this particularly virulent evil spirit because they themselves did not pray and fast enough. Jesus himself casts out evil spirits with a simple word of command, and he does so here as well, “but the disciples’ authority was always derivative, and prayer is an appropriate recognition of that fact in any encounter with spiritual evil” (RT France, The Gospel of Mark, page 370).



“The disciples must not think to do their work always with a like ease; some services call them to take more than ordinary pains; but Christ can do that with a word’s speaking, which they must prevail for the doing of by prayer and fasting” (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, emphasis in the text).



“‘Prayer and fasting,’ suggests a regime [a way of life] rather than the immediate response to a crisis. While Jesus has ruled out obligatory fasting for the disciples while he is with them (Mark 2:19), this reading would suggest (as does Matthew 6:16-18) that they were still permitted, and even encouraged, to fast and pray on occasion, and that this would have been an appropriate preparation for the spiritual conflict involved in exorcism” (RT France, The Gospel of Mark, page 369-370).



At this point some reflection on the importance of prayer and fasting in the Christian life and for Christian ministry would be appropriate.



Christianity is based on faith in Christ, but a Christian who is justified by his faith, not by his works, because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross to make reparation for our sins, once justified must live as a “new man,” and a new creation in Christ. This new life in Christ includes prayer and fasting, and Jesus instructed his disciples how to fast, saying, “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:16).



The phrase “prayer and fasting” to describe the way a justified Christian should now live indicates a life of complete commitment to the Lord and his service. The Christian life is a life of constant interior dialogue with God, praising him, and asking him to justify and sanctify us; but it is also a life of self-denial, for “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:25 NKJV). So we are to deny ourselves in this world. We are not to live a worldly life of pleasure seeking, but rather a life that seeks our joy in the Lord with an undivided heart so that all our devotion and love might be directed to him alone.



So we are not to try to save our life in this world in a worldly way by worldly living and indulging in all the worldly pleasures that we can. Rather we are to lose our life for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, and whoever does so will truly save his life with God, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NKJV).



Yet this regime of prayer and fasting is not only for the personal benefit of the individual disciple, but it is also something that will strengthen him in his ministry, since he will live as a person totally dedicated to God, and not to worldly pleasures and a self-centered worldly way of life. This will concentrate divine power in his words and actions. His preaching will not only be with eloquent words, but will strike people with spirit and power and affect their lives.



In the apostolic Church the disciples’ dedicated life of prayer and fasting, focused solely on the Lord, gave them power to perform miraculous cures and exorcisms. And it seems that in today’s gospel Jesus is pointing out that the disciples failed to exorcise this virulent spirit, even though in the past they were able to cast out other spirits, simply because this spirit required more dedication on their part in terms of a deeper life of prayer and fasting devoted wholly to the Lord.



This applies to us also who seek to do Christian ministry. If we do not live a life of prayer and fasting, our ministry will be weakened, we will be and will be perceived as people basically dedicated to our own enjoyment, to fine dining on exquisite food, and to an easy and relaxed lifestyle.



That is not the ideal that Jesus presents to his disciples, for he tells them, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).



So we should abandon everything for the sake of Christ, for only in this way can we obtain the great treasure of the kingdom of God in our lives, as Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven [the kingdom of God] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).



This should describe our life as Christians and as Christian ministers. To have the power of the kingdom for ministry we have to sell all that we have to get enough money to buy the field in which we discovered a buried treasure so that we can claim possession of it. This is what the kingdom is like. The only way we can come into possession of it and its power is by abandoning everything else, specifically by abandoning a worldly lifestyle and worldly values.



“Therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). Apparently on this particular occasion of their failure to cast out an unclean spirit, Jesus saw that his disciples were not sufficiently dedicated, but rather were still too worldly, too focused on their own worldly pleasures and enjoyments. They do not fast enough and do not live a life of constant interior prayer. Therefore, when they come against a hard case in ministry – casting out this particularly virulent spirit – they are embarrassed in front of the scribes and the crowd by their inability to perform the task required.



While very few people today cast out evil spirits, we do preach and seek to minister to people in a way that will improve their lives. If we do not live a life of prayer and fasting ourselves, we will lack the spiritual power in many cases to do what we could have done if we had been more dedicated to prayer and fasting.

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