In Mark 9:29, Jesus says, “This kind can only come out by prayer,” with several Bible translations adding, “and fasting.”
Whether fasting was included or not in what Jesus said there’s a story being told here in which the disciples, for the first time in their experience as Jesus’ disciples, cannot heal someone. Up to that point they’d “cured every kind of disease and sickness” with Jesus’ full authority, Matthew 10:1. And in Luke 10:1 Jesus had also sent out seventy others with the same power, who later “returned with joy” to report to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name.”
All they’d had to do was command demons and sicknesses in Jesus’ name to leave a person, and every time it had happened, no prayer or fasting needed. But then a man in Mark 9:17 brought his son to Jesus, telling Jesus that his son “is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. When the spirit seizes him, it throws him to the ground. My son foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” And in verse 22, this same evil spirit from the boy’s childhood had “often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.” But when the boy’s Dad had “asked Jesus’ disciples to drive out the spirit, they could not,” verse 18.
The disciples had no clue as to why this had happened, as we see later in verse 28 when they “asked Jesus privately, ‘Why couldn’t we drive the evil spirit out?’” And that’s when Jesus replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.”
This was the first time Jesus included the need for prayer and fasting in casting out a demon. But why? Was it because the poor lad was being tormented by some sort of ‘super demon’, requiring extra power that only prayer and fasting could generate? Was that the lesson being taught here?
Not in context it isn’t. The context is Jesus’ instant and emotional reaction in verse 19 to the disciples not being able to heal the boy. He yells out, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
This entire episode was orchestrated by God to highlight Israel’s greatest problem, taking note that “the teachers of the law” were present as well in verse 14, so even the leaders of Israel hadn’t a clue what to do for the boy either.
And the reason they hadn’t a clue was their lack of faith as a nation in the power and authority of Jesus over every illness and evil. They’d seen Jesus do incredible miracles, but instead of trusting he’d passed on that power to his disciples, the teachers of the law had “argued with them” verse 14. They’d grabbed the opportunity to downplay the disciples’ power because they hadn’t been able to heal the boy.
Bad mistake, because Jesus flays the teachers of the law alive for not trusting him, and he extends it to the whole nation as well. Jesus’ frustration at their lack of faith boils over again too, when the boy’s Dad says to Jesus in verse 22, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” Jesus replies – rather testily it sounds like – because he knows “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
And at that point the lights go on in the Dad’s mind, because he yells out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” And there you have the lesson of this story. It’s not about praying and fasting for extra power to cast out some ‘super demon’, it’s praying and fasting for the help to overcome lack of faith. And that’s when fasting can do some good, in casting out the lack of faith that cannot trust in Jesus’ power yet.
And to get that point across, Jesus “rebuked the evil spirit,” and commanded it to come out of the boy and never enter him again. With a lot of shrieking and convulsions the demon leaves, and the boy lies there so still it looks like he’s dead. But Jesus takes hm by the hand and lifts him to his feet, and the boy stands on his own completely healed.
The same story is told in Matthew 17, and Jesus summarizes it rather nicely when his disciples ask him in verse 19 why they couldn’t drive the demon out. It’s “because you have so little faith,” he replies. Faith is the issue here, the kind that believes “Nothing will be impossible for you,” verse 20.
So, if I’m reading Jesus right here, he’s saying that all it takes is prayer and fasting for that kind of faith if we’re still lacking it. Well, think of the good we could do in the impossible situations the people we care for are going through in this virus crisis, if we believe no situation is impossible for Jesus to solve….