When the seventy-two disciples returned, they joyfully reported to him, “Lord, even the demons obey us when we use your name!” Luke 10:17 NLT
Failure on mission
Twice in fairly quick succession Jesus sends his disciples out to “tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick,” first in chapter 9 and second in chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel. Before he sends them the first time he gives them all power and authority to cast out all demons and heal all diseases (Luke 9:1). Where they went, and what they did is not recorded. When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done (Luke 9:10). What they said on their return is not recorded either. Whether the mission trip was a success or a failure is unclear.
However, later in the same chapter we become aware that their mission was not an unmitigated success: there was at least one person who the disciples could not heal. Luke relates the story: there was a demon possessed boy brought to the disciples by his father. He asked them to “cast out the spirit,” but they apparently couldn’t do it. This evil spirit was destroying the boy’s life, making him “scream, throwing him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It batters him and hardly ever leaves him alone.” (Luke 9:37-43)
The father, not willing to accept defeat, turned finally to Jesus, who apparently healed him effortlessly after making a cryptic comment about a “faithless and corrupt people.” The boy was set free and returned to his father. The effect on the spectators was profound: “Awe gripped the people as they saw this majestic display of God’s power.”
At the beginning of chapter 10 Jesus sends his disciples out again, seventy two of them this time, with more instructions as to how they should conduct themselves on their mission. This time, when they returned, they “joyfully reported to him, ‘Lord even the demons obey us when we use your name!’ ”
So what was the difference between the first mission and the second? Why the failure with demons the first time but success the second?
At first sight it would seem that the answer to that question must lie in Jesus’ exclamation when he met the father of the demons possessed boy: Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9.41). The problem, it would seem, is lack of faith and “corruption.” The solution would then logically seem to be that the disciples deal with their own corruption, and grow stronger in their faith.
There is no doubt that faith and purity are important aspects of following Jesus. But what did Jesus mean by faith? Surely simply this, that his disciples believe that he was who he said he was, the Son of God, and that he could do what he said he could do, and what he had demonstrated that he could do. He challenged them to believe that God, and by that he meant himself, had power over demons and everything that was demonic.
But surely the disciples already believed this. They had seen Jesus cast out demons too many times to not believe it. So surely they had faith in Jesus already. Though their performance thus far may have made them doubt themselves, even if they believed in Jesus.
And what of this purity thing? Jesus certainly called his disciples to right living, to purity of heart and mind. He wanted them, as he wants us, to be clean, to be free from the practice and power of our own corrupt desires. But were the disciples really any more free, more pure, on their second mission trip than their first. It seems unlikely. They were still the same people.
So I have to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ exasperation, and his outburst about corruption and faithlessness, hold the key to success in casting out demons. No, this passage is about something else. It is not primarily about secret techniques for exorcism.
The process of discipleship
Luke 9 and 10 seem rather to be about a process that I like to think of as discipleship training. It was a process that the disciples needed to experience. It is a process that we too, as followers of Jesus, need to go through. It can be an exciting process. But it appears to involve failure as much as success. As such, the process that Luke has recorded for us is amazingly realistic, comfortingly authentic. For any of us who have embarked on this process we know that we are not instantly transformed into disciples of great power and authority when we choose to follow Jesus, when we respond to his call to go out into the world to do his work. We head off with excitement and trepidation, and we see amazing things, but it is not long before we are confronted with our failures. And failure is not something that many of us welcome.
There are different aspects to the process of discipleship. Jesus gives his disciples a task – announcing the Kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry. He challenges them to follow him, which means setting aside their own priorities in life and taking on his, doing what he does, saying what he says to a world that is often hostile. He gives instructions about how to respond to opposition and indifference. He lets them go, like sheep among wolves, and he lets them fail, though they may well have had successes too, even if none are mentioned after their first mission trip. In fact, the rest of Luke chapter 9 only seems to record failures, not just the demon possession incident. It is not a particularly encouraging sight.
There is an argument among the disciples over which of them is greatest. Jesus tells them they have got it all wrong, and corrects their thinking. Then there is the disciples’ indignation over some people they don’t know who are also casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They report to Jesus with just a hint of smugness that they have put a stop to that, no doubt expecting his approval. Jesus tells them this was the wrong thing to do.
Then they enter a town where they are not welcomed. James and John have a suggestion about how to deal with such opposition: “should we call down fire from heaven to burn them up?” “Don’t be ridiculous,” Jesus says. “That’s not the way to respond to rejection.” And he tells them what to do instead.
A picture emerges of the disciples as a bunch of bumbling idiots who can’t seem to do or say anything right. They seem to have misunderstood everything, and repeatedly their own sinful (“corrupt”) natures come through in their actions and reactions. They are not displaying the faith or the purity that Jesus had called them to, or for which they had signed up. They were raw and messy. Very much like most of us disciples of Jesus.
Is it any wonder that Jesus could exasperated: “how long must I put up with you?!”
The God of second chances
But he doesn’t give up on them, just sends them out to try again. Despite his frustration he does not cast them aside and look for better, more promising material. Certainly he sees them as messy and raw, but then as now he sees his disciples as “diamonds in the rough.” He sees beyond what they are, to what they will be, if they continue to follow him.
If there is any key to success that emerges from these chapters it is simply this: obedience. Our success is not about our competence, or our righteousness, or our own strength. It is rather about not giving up, but trying again.
Jesus calls us to step out, to take risks. And if we fall, he says get up and go again. He challenges us to not become preoccupied with our own failures, but to listen to his repeated challenges. It is about keeping our eyes, and our ears, fixed on Jesus.
This is not an easy call. I give up easily. I get easily distracted in life by my own agenda. That is the corruption that Jesus speaks about. Jesus says to give up my agenda and take on his (deny yourself, take up your cross daily).
I get disillusioned by my own failure. That is because I am self obsessed, believing it is all up to me, rather than God obsessed, believing that God is the one with the power. That is the faithlessness that Jesus speaks of. I think it is all too hard, and I am tempted to give up the fight, lay down the mission, go back to the normal life. Jesus says, “don’t look back.” Keep going.
I can pursue my own agenda. Or I can pursue God’s agenda. Choosing to pursue God’s will for the world (“your kingdom come, your will be done”) does not guarantee instant success, but as I open myself to Jesus’ ongoing instruction and correction, and as I walk the path he has given me to walk, obeying his direction, trusting him, believing in his teaching about himself and the world, the powers of evil will become subject to me and I will begin to see people around me set free. The powers and principalities of darkness will no longer terrify me, nor will they prevail against me. I will be able to stand against them.
The disciples did not give up after their early failures. Despite what had happened they obeyed Jesus’ second challenge, this time with a little bit more understanding of Jesus and his Kingdom, and of themselves, and tried again. Their faith had grown just a little bit. But this time they succeeded, and they came back rejoicing and excited. Wouldn’t we?
I wonder if I am willing to keep trying, willing to accept correction, willing to obey afresh the great commission of Jesus and his Kingdom, willing to go again?