Questions about the exorcism of the demoniac son


The story of the exorcism of the demoniac son is read on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost and the 4th Sunday of Great Lent.

  1. Which gospels report it?
  2. Why is it read in the Great Lent, and in particular, in the latter half? Give two reasons. Hint: a major focus of Great Lent is mentioned in the gospel text.
  3. What major event happened just before the casting out of the demon in the father's son?
  4. Tell the composite story, using all three gospel accounts (in your own words)







The healing of the demoniac son by Christ at the request of his father is reported in all three synoptic gospels:

  • Matthew 17:14-23
  • Luke 9:37-42
  • Mark 9:17-29 (4th Sunday of Great Lent)

The reading speaks of fasting, and is therefore apropos to read during the Great Fast, and especially in the latter half of the fast, when many are weary and need to be reminded of the importance of fasting. It gives the reason we fast, for those who have ears to hear.

At the end of this reading, Christ tells his disciples of His upcoming passion. This event was very near the end of his earthly ministry, just after He had shown His divinity to His specially chosen group of disciples, Peter, James and John, on Mount Tabor. (The church commemorates this important event, which was also a harbinger of the resurrection and its implications, as the Transfiguration, on June 6th.)

Just as He prepared His apostles and disciples by speaking of His upcoming passion, so the church prepares her children for the contemplation of the passion and the Resurrection by speaking of these things in the latter half of Great Lent. We must take our cues from the mind of the church, and the things she chooses to speak about and ponder. It is time now to set our face towards Jerusalem, finish the fast and be enlightened by the Resurrection. Let us redouble our efforts now, knowing what is shortly to come.

The Story:

A man with a son, whom he called a "lunatic", came to Jesus and begged him to heal his son, at the same time saying that he had taken his son to the apostles and they could not heal the boy. The man told Christ that the boy sometimes threw himself into the fire, and sometimes the water. Christ reacted with a complaint, about the "faithless and perverse" generation. He called the boy to Himself and rebuked the demon, casting him out. The boy appeared to be dead, but Jesus took him by the hand, and raised him up. The apostles came to Jesus when they were alone, and asked Him why they could not cast out the demon. He told them it was because of their unbelief, and "this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting". He told them that if they had faith "as a mustard" seed that they could accomplish anything. Immediately after this, he told his apostles of His upcoming betrayal, death and resurrection.



" And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; {18} And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not." (Mark 9:17-18, see also Matt 17:15-16, Luke 9:38-40)

The man told Jesus he had asked His disciples to heal his son, and they could not. Which disciples? Why had he not gone to Jesus directly?







The man approached the remaining disciples left behind when Jesus ascended Mt. Tabor with Peter, James and John. He approached them not only because Jesus was gone, but also because the disciples had been given the power to heal, and this was well known. Requests to them were quite common.



"And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child." (Mark 9:21, not in the other accounts)

Why did Christ ask the father about his son, since He knows all things?







Jesus often asked questions so that the answer could be heard by those around Him. As the God-man, He knew all things, and had no need to ask questions, but we need to hear the answers! In this case, our Lord wanted us to fully understand the evil condition of the boy, and the hopelessness of his father. After the healing, people would remember how terrible the former state of the boy was, and marvel at the power of God.

In the exorcism prayers at the making of a catechumen, the priest says of the demons: "... Who hath not even power over swine ...". The church knows the demons are powerless before God. One single angel or the lowest rank is incomparably more powerful than the whole host of demons. We poor ones need to remember the power of God and not be fooled by the parlor tricks and subterfuge of the demons.



Explain the folk understanding of what a lunatic is.







There was and is a prevalent superstition that the moon can cause madness. Lunatics were believed to be those who were affected by the moon ("luna" means "moon"), and went mad when it was in certain stages. Of course, true Christians understand that the moon has nothing to do with madness, or with demon possession, which often makes a person appear to be mad. The crafty demons want people to believe in the moon, while they remain invisible, and their evil actions unknown and concealed.



What were the virtues and vices of the father? Cite scripture as evidence.







Like most people, the father was a mixture of good and bad. He had very slight belief, a mere wisp of belief, weak and unsteady, but it was enough to cause him to (imperfectly) beg Christ for healing, and to receive it.

We can see the man's unbelief and complaining spirit in the way he asks Christ for healing. He does not blame himself, as he should, but blames others:

"And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; {18} And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not." (Mark 9:17-18)

Christ clearly shows the man that it is HIS unbelief and depravity which has contributed to his son's terrible state (Christ's rebuke is more far-reaching than this one point. See a question which addresses this, below). There is a clear lesson here for parents who will hear it. We must hold ourselves accountable for the good upbringing of our children.

"And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you? Bring thy son hither." (Luke 9:41)

The father shows the germ of belief, or, shall we say, a small seed, not only by bringing his son to Christ, but also by his plaintive cry:

"And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." (Mark 9:24)



"And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us." (Mark 9:22)

What is the inner meaning of this?







The Fathers reveal the mind of the church concerning the inner meaning of the demonized boy falling into fire and water. These two things summarize the sins of mankind. Fire represents "hot" things - anger and desire (lust, hatred, etc). Water represents the "pounding surf of worldly cares". (Blessed Theophylact, Commentary on Mark 9) The demons entice us in turns with temptations to both of these kind of sins.

Let us not make the fatal mistake of understanding the plight of the boy to be possible only for the demon possessed. We poor Christians constantly allow ourselves to fall into the fire and the water, and in so doing, according to the mind of the church, we reveal in ourselves a kind of insanity. The fire of lust and desire burns more surely and completely than a material fire and the abyss of worldly cares and misplaced priorities drowns the soul. We must flee the fire and the water. At the end of the passage are important instructions each Christian must follow if he is to flee the fire and water. See another question, below.



"Then Jesus answered and said O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?" (Matthew 17.17)

Jesus' rebuke has deep inner meaning.

  1. Explain 2 meanings for Jesus' exclamation of "how long shall I be with you?"
  2. Explain the important connection between faithlessness and perversity.
  3. Who did Jesus rebuke?







Our Lord's statement, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?" (Matthew 17.17) was uttered near the end of His earthly ministry, and before His Great Passion.

He was expressing a longing to be back with His Father, and to leave the corrupt earth, because it was a torment for Him to coexist among so many with corrupt belief (Bl. Theophylact, Commentary on Mark 9, and Matthew 17) He was also prophesying the nearness of His passion, and departure from the earth.

Jesus' rebuke was directed towards many. He rebuked the father for his unbelief and perversity, and in so doing taught him to take responsibility for his actions. He rebuked the child, for as Blessed Theophylact says, "... it appears that he too, lacked faith and his lack of faith had given occasion for the demon to enter him" (Commentary on Matt 17:16-18). He also rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, because He smelled the stench of their unbelief.

Christ emphatically shows the relationship between perversity and unbelief. In our day, many fool themselves and compartmentalize their lives, because they do not understand the relationship of their actions and their belief. Perversity is acting in ways that are contrary to our nature. (See Theophylact, Commentary on Luke 9:37-33) We were created for holiness and purity. To the pure, all things are pure, and they are given the ability to understand the depths of holy things, as God reveals them. On the contrary, the perverse are unable to believe. Their perversity breeds faithlessness, which in turn estranges them from the source of all good, increasing their perversity.

Christian, mark these words of our Lord well. If you suffer from doubts, or despondency, blame your perversity! Examine yourself carefully: what part of God's law are you foolishly ignoring? Are you making excuses for your inconsistent fasting, or prayer, or attendance at the divine services? If you are not availing yourself of these mercies, then you have found the cause of your unbelief. Are you battling your lust or anger or jealously, or giving in to these abominable things at the slightest provocation? You have found another cause of your unbelief. Are you preoccupied with wordily cares and concerns, so much so that you are like the "double minded man", who is "unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8) God is not responsible for your unbelief, or your perversity. Acknowledge your sin, run to confession, and begin to live fiercely as an Orthodox Christian and the sweet breeze of belief will refresh you.

"Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. {18} Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. {19} Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. {20} But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (James 2:17-20)



"And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out?" (Mark 9:28, also Matt 17:19)

Why did the apostles ask the Lord in private concerning their inability to cast out the demon? Why were the apostles unable to heal the boy?







The apostles were afraid that they had lost the grace of God, since they had been able to heal so freely before encountering the demon possessed boy. This was well after the Lord had sent them out to heal, saying: "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: {6} But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. {7} And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. {8} Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give." (Mat 10:5-8)

They were unable to heal the boy because of their unbelief. The father's entreaties to them were likewise not answered because of his unbelief. Also, the demons in the boy were firmly implanted. Our Lord makes it clear in His answer to His apostles that such firmly implanted demons (and in the case of all men, whether demons live within them or not, their passions) can only be expelled by great effort, the assiduous application of God's laws, and the consistency of a life lived in the mind of the church:

"Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? {20} And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. {21} Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." (Mat 17:19-21)



"And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out? {29} And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting." (Mark 9:28-29)

Prayer and fasting. How has the church applied this explanation to her daily life?







It is axiomatic for those who have experienced God's strengthening that prayer AND fasting are utterly necessary in order to purify the soul. The church has always understood this important connection between our bodies and our souls. Only in our evil days do so many who call themselves Christian, even the Orthodox, ignore God's laws concerning this most necessary weapon we must employ if we wish to be victorious in the arena of our life.

We poor ones are beset by many weaknesses and passions. Many of these things cannot be extricated except by great desire and hope in God, and the natural results of this desire - the following of God's laws and instructions. Here our Lord shows us that some of those things that cast us into the fire and the water can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. We are foolish if we do not heed these words or if we heed them partially, according to our convenience and whims.



But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose. (Mark 9.27)

What does this mean?







This short description describes in microcosm the synergy between God and man, and the way we must go for our salvation.

By taking the boy by the hand, Christ shows us that He is the only One who can strengthen man's power to act. With God's help, man can do nothing. The whole power of the incarnation is shown here. Christ took on our flesh, and imbued it with the potential for perfection. He continually strengthens man's will, and makes him able to comprehend the Godhead, and become like God in moral perfection. (See Bl. Theophylact, Commentary on Mark 9:19-27)

We must understand however, this important truth: "God first helps us, and then we ourselves are required to work" (Ibid.). This is clearly indicated by the boy arising. He was initially helped, then he stood up of his own accord. This arising is the necessary effort of a man himself to do good.

A Christian will not be saved, unless he makes a great effort. Christian! Know from Whom your ability is given and why grace comes to enlighten and strengthen you, and then work on your salvation with fear and trembling.


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