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Father Richard Kunst: Did Jesus banter with the Apostles?

Is verbally “slamming” someone a sin? It certainly can be, but often it can be done in jest to make a point with a slight sense of humor. I have to admit that this is something I do pretty often. I was brought up in a family in which humorous banter and verbally slamming someone was the typical form of communication and entertainment. 

Father Richard Kunst

In my work with our former bishop, now Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, bantering and an occasional verbal slam was typical and all done in fun. I can still hear him saying, “Father Kunst, you have a marvelous grasp of the obvious!” Or if I didn’t know something, he would say, “Father Kunst, that is willful, culpable ignorance!” 

Banter like that can be very humorous and sometimes with an edge so as to make a point. It can easily become sinful if it is meant to hurt a person, but it certainly does not have to be that way. 

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark we have clear evidence that Jesus used a slight verbal slam on his Apostles, or at least a not-so-mild form of banter. The scene is a familiar one; Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from a mountain after having experienced the Transfiguration. As they approach the other nine Apostles, they notice a commotion, as there was a young man possessed by an evil spirit. They had been trying to rid the man of the spirit but were unable. In his response, Jesus shows a rare expression of human emotion when he says, “O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” (Mark 9:19). After this, Jesus interacts with the possessed man’s father and finally cures him of the evil spirit. 

The narrative continues by saying that Jesus and the Apostles went into the house (without telling us whose house) and then the Apostles ask a pretty obvious question: “Why could we not drive the spirit out?” (Mark 9:28b). To this question Jesus offers the divine banter, a divine verbal slam. 

Now, before I quote Jesus’ response, it is important to note that the written word, as great as it is, has one major deficiency: it often cannot give us the tone in which the words were spoken. When Jesus expresses frustration at the “faithless generation,” we can pretty much imagine how he said it because the words are pretty descriptive of a frustrated person, but when it comes to a lot of other things he says, we have to imagine the emotion behind it based on the scene. 

When the Apostles ask him why they were not able to expel the evil spirit, Jesus says, “This kind can only come out through prayer” (Mark 9:29). Slam! Can you imagine how he must have said that? The implication is clear. He is telling these guys that if they prayed a little more, then maybe, just maybe they would have the ability to deal with stubborn evil spirits, but until they do that, the evil spirits will have the upper hand. You can almost hear Jesus say, “You guys, that is willful, culpable ignorance.” 

This line about prayer, of course, is directly connected to the line earlier when Jesus was illustrating exasperation at their lack of faith. Prayer feeds faith. If we do not pray, then our faith will certainly flatline. The two are absolutely connected. Prayer is the nourishment to faith. Faith without prayer is like water trying to be water without oxygen, it just does not work. 

There were many instances in the Gospels where Jesus left a town or a village without being able to cure many people. The gospels will repeatedly say that Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith. This should not be us. The mere fact you are reading this column means that you have some faith life, but how is your prayer life? 

I heard my good friend Father Mike Schmitz once say that a “Catholic Atheist” is a person who regularly comes to Mass but does not give any thought to prayer or God during the week. Catholic Atheist is an apt description for such people, because if we do not pray, our faith will be nothing more than external dressing, a shallow facade. The most important thing we can do is pray, because if we do not have a good relationship with God in this life, it would certainly be wrong to assume that we will have one in the next life. 

Jesus’ not-so-subtle slam of the Apostles’ lack of prayer when it came to exorcizing demons serves us as well. It is a good reminder that it is our prayer that will make our faith flourish. The two cannot be separated. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]