What are the additional qualifiers required of the disciples in Mark 9?

As I was reading through Mark, I stumbled across a verse that caught my attention because of its apparent aberrancy. The verse in question was Mark 9:29, which states: “He told them, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.'” This verse follows an account in which Jesus purged a demon from a boy after the disciples were unsuccessful in doing so. When Jesus was asked why their attempts had failed, he replied as such, stating the need for prayer and fasting in such a case.

This verse was of particular interest to me, because it seemed somewhat at odds with what I had read throughout the rest of Mark. In numerous accounts when addressing his disciples or crowds of people, Jesus proclaimed that they could achieve anything through faith, including the passage Mark 11:22-23: “Jesus told his disciples, ‘Have faith in God! I tell all of you with certainty, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ if he doesn’t doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.'” This also comes after he had granted the disciples the ability to heal people and spread the word of his message.

So we are given multiple instances of possibility through faith being stressed, yet this passage seems to uncut that. Though it does stem from a question of faith, it seems to be adding more qualifiers than were stressed earlier throughout the book. It seems to be an additional test of faith that they must undergo fasting and prayer in order to possess the ability to drive out certain demons. Fasting was an important religious discipline of the time. As stated here, fasting is considered to be “the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines.” It was a process through which it was believed the participant could grow closer to God and gain a greater spiritual understanding and rapport.

Faith seems to be the basis for the message being conveyed about driving out demons. However, I followed this line of thinking because I found it interesting that this particular verse seemed to demand more strenuous qualifiers than the passages that dealt with the same issue earlier in Mark. Such a test of fasting and prayer occurred only with certain demons, which leads me to believe that these would have been portrayed as demons of greater power, which would require a more intensive immersion into the message that had been relayed to the disciples.

I found it interesting because this requirement of fasting and prayer was reminiscent of a test that so many other literary figures have to endure. Many literary figures, particularly fairly virtuous ones such as the disciples, must undertake such tests of faith or determination in order to better understand what is required of them and gain not only more awareness, but a greater degree of capability. So while it does harken back to the idea of deepening faith once you follow that line of thinking through to conclusion, I found it interesting that that particular verse followed a slightly aberrant literary path in showing greater depth in the process than the earlier passages.

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