In our last essay we studied the Transfiguration of Jesus (Luke 9:28-36). It took place about a week after the confession of Peter. Today we are studying Luke 9:37-50, a unit that contains the final events of Jesus’ Galilean Ministry. The first is the expulsion of a demon from a boy. But before we talk about that, I want us to take notice of something that Matthew and Mark tell in their accounts that Luke left out of his. Please turn to Matthew 17:9-13 and look at that passage.
As Jesus and the disciples were coming down the mountain, Jesus told the disciples not to talk about “the vision,” meaning the Transfiguration, “until, after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Mark tells us that the disciples questioned among themselves what Jesus meant by the Son of Man rising from the dead (Mk. 9:10). They clearly did not yet grasp what Jesus was teaching them about his coming resurrection. Then the disciples asked Jesus about the tradition that Elijah must come before the end. And Jesus declared that Elijah already had come. The disciples understood that he meant John the Baptist.
Now there are several points to be made here. First, the fact that Jesus called the Transfiguration a “vision” confirms the supernatural aspect of that experience. Second, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection obviously still was not clear to the disciples. And third, Jesus identified John the Baptist as the one who fulfilled the end time Elijah role. Luke for some reason chose not to include these facts in his Gospel.
Now then, coming back to Luke, we see in 9:37 that the little band did not come down the mountain until the next day. Indeed the Transfiguration may have taken place at night. And a large crowd met them. Then a man from the crowd got Jesus’ attention and begged him to tend to the man’s only child, a son, who was possessed by a demon. Combining Mark and Luke’s descriptions of what the demon did to the boy, it cried out inarticulately. Indeed the boy could not speak articulately (Mk. 9:17). It convulsed the boy until he foamed at the mouth; threw him to the ground; tore at his body; made him grind his teeth; and made his body rigid.
The word used by Matthew to describe the boy’s condition is a word meaning “moonstruck.” Apparently because some of the symptoms just mentioned are the same as those seen in epileptics, the NIV and NRSV both translate “moonstruck” as “epileptic.” I do not understand why they would translate it that way when both Mark and Luke clearly say that a spirit (an unclean spirit according to Luke 9:42) possessed the boy and that Jesus cast it out of him. Jesus not only knew the difference between illnesses and demon possession, he never confused the two.
Verse 40 tells us that Jesus’ disciples, presumably the nine who had not been on the mountain with Jesus, had been unable to cast out the demon. Jesus’ answer to the boy’s father in verse 41 is interesting. He seems miffed by the lack of faith in the situation. Although Jesus was responding to the boy’s father, it seems that he had everyone present (the father, the disciples, the crowds) in mind by what he said. They all were part of “a faithless and perverse generation.”
Jesus told the boy’s father to bring him to Jesus. While the boy was coming, the demon seized the boy. But Jesus cast out the unclean spirit and returned the boy to his father.
How would you apply this passage to our lives? It seems to me the issue is faith. Jesus rather consistently failed to find real faith in people. Of course the crowds had little faith. The Twelve even though Jesus had given them authority over demons, did not have enough faith to cast this demon out. The boy’s father wanted to believe, but had difficulty doing so. Mark adds a further conversation between Jesus and the father that isn’t in Luke. The father, just before the expulsion of the demon, expressed the kind of faith that many of us have when he exclaimed, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24).
In verses 9:43b-45 we find the so-called second passion prediction. It is the second time that Jesus clearly taught the disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise again. Luke alone among the Synoptic evangelists mentions Jesus’ command, “Let these words sink into your ears.” Luke was concerned to report that Jesus wanted the disciples to remember this saying, even if they didn’t understand it.
Both Matthew and Mark give a more full account of the prediction than Luke does. Mark’s parallel reads, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mk. 9:31). But the disciples couldn’t grasp what he was saying. It was just too foreign to what they expected of the Messiah.
Next, in verses 46-48, we see a dispute among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. It is interesting that a worldly attitude is seen in the disciples both times after their inability to understand Jesus’ teachings on his self-sacrifice. After the first passion prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus for saying it; and Jesus in return rebuked Peter for caring about human rather than divine things (Mk. 8:32-33). Now here, after the second passion prediction, the disciples express a worldly attitude by arguing about which of them was the greatest.
According to Mark, this conversation had taken place on the road during their return from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum (Mk. 9:33-34). Jesus knew, apparently intuitively, what the disciples had been discussing. So he decided on an object lesson. Jesus took a child and did some teaching. We have to take all three Synoptic accounts together to get the full picture. Each of them reports a different significant point.
Mark tells us that Jesus made a significant statement before he took the child. He told the Twelve, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). That was a direct rebuke of the disciples’ attitude.
Matthew informs us of an additional lesson that Jesus made in respect to the child. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3-4). This is clearer then what we see in either Mark or Luke.
Luke reports Jesus’ point that to welcome, literally “receive,” the children (the lowly in society) is to welcome him (v. 48). And to welcome, or receive, Jesus is to receive the heavenly Father.
Turning to application, how would you apply this story to our lives? I would say, first of all, wanting to be first in the kingdom will not work. We must want to be the servant of all, especially the weak. Second, we must become like children to enter the kingdom. That is, we must become humble like an innocent child. And third, we must receive or welcome the weak, which will lead to our being welcomed by the heavenly Father.
The final segment is in verses 49-50. John brings up the fact that a man had been seen casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples had tried to stop the man, because he was not with them. In other words the man was ministering in the name of Jesus without Jesus’ permission or supervision. The disciples saw this as an improper use of authority and power. But Jesus saw it as someone laboring with him against a common enemy. He declared, “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”