The Personalist Project

That's what an old friend used to call the twelve apostles. This nickname sprang to mind as I was reading the Gospel of Mark the other day, a passage where the Twelve are in fine form, each outdoing the other at missing the point.

Jesus comes down from Mount Tabor, fresh from the Transfiguration, with Peter, James and John. Peter, who "did not know what he was saying" but possibly felt the need to fill a socially awkward silence, had just offered to construct some tents for the transfigured Messiah and the two ancient prophets. He had to be quieted down with a voice from Heaven, thundering, "Hear him." (As I tell my kids, who are also fond of chatter, you can't listen while you're talking. The voice from Heaven was more succinct.)

That settled, they reach the bottom of the mountain, only to find the rest of the apostles arguing with the scribes. This is generally a losing proposition. Jesus silences scribes once or twice, but there's no record of anybody else managing it. Also, they're attempting unsuccessfully to cast a deaf and mute spirit out of a little boy.

The father of the possessed boy gets into the act, with a request that exudes his own lack of confidence, his tentative effort to find out if, who knows, maybe this new rabbi is a competent wonder-worker. What could it hurt? "If you can--" he begins. Jesus responds with an oft-misunderstood promise: "All things are possible to them that believe," He assures him. (More on that in a minute.)

The boy's father then gets a chance to redeem himself and express what two millennia of Christians have found a highly relatable statement. "I do believe, Lord," he blurts out. "Help thou mine unbelief!" He's done pretending he has any more faith than he really does, and he gives us all an excellent little prayer for those times when we're having a hard time trusting that God knows what He's doing but willing to admit we need help.

Next, Jesus explains clearly that He will be killed and then rise from the dead. They don't get "what rise from the dead might mean"--nor do they find out, because they're afraid to ask. Again, as I tell my kids--Ask! Please! Don't pretend you already know! I can always tell, anyway! But they don't. OK, fine.

Then, for the coup de grâce--this is all in the same chapter!--He inquires innocently what they were discussing on the way. It turns out they'd been arguing over which of them was the greatest. When Moses went up a mountain for a little while, long before that, the Israelites got it into their heads to melt down their jewelry and make a golden calf. The apostles, not to be undone, spend the time when the Messiah was up on Mt. Tabor having the dopiest possible conversation. I can't leave you guys alone for a minute, He must have been thinking. 

There's a common thread here, and it's lack of faith. But what kind of faith?

I was a certain brand of Evangelical long enough to pick up the idea that faith was a question of having a really, really strong feeling of confidence that a desired event would take place. "All things are possible to them that believe" meant "to them that can work themselves up into a feeling of strong conviction." Just "name it and claim it," and your territory will be enlarged; your illness will be healed; your financial troubles will be over.

But the problem with that is, it's not personalist enough. 

The core of faith is not belief that Event X will happen, but trust in a Person. The father of the possessed boy didn't lack enthusiasm for wish fulfillment; he lacked trust in Jesus--in His competence, His good will, or maybe both.

The apostles lack understanding of what Jesus is talking about. That could have been easily fixed, but they also lack sufficient trust in Him to ask, "What are you talking about?" Maybe they thought they were already supposed to know. They're like the panicky student in the Algebra II or World History class--at some point, asking any question at all runs the risk of revealing just how deep your ignorance really is. So you lay low, sinking deeper and deeper into that ignorance.

But the apostles' ignorance wasn't the problem. Ignorance is a highly treatable condition. What stopped them was the lack of trust in the One who could have clarified everything.

When they hesitate to admit that they were discussing who was the greatest, this at least shows that they were ashamed of their self-centeredness. But the self-centeredness wasn't the problem: that could have been overcome by trust, too. Trust would have allowed them to ask for the help they needed to stop being that way. 

So no matter how ignorant, stubborn, timid or self-centered we are, no need to despair. We are all (apologies to St. Paul) as stumblebums born out of due time. As long as we have the faith to admit that and accept the help we so obviously need, we're still perfectly salvageable stumblebums.

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