Mother Teresa is known for being, pretty much, the best person ever. She gave up everything and lived for the sake of the poor in Calcutta. There’s a story about how her feet were badly deformed, not from a birth defect, but because she never wore shoes that fit. The convent got cast-off shoes and she made sure that everyone else had the best pair leaving only poorly fitting, mismatched shoes for her.
She spent nearly fifty years serving the poorest of the poor in India. After her death in 1997 letters of hers were released as a book. She wrote the letters to confessors -- those in the Catholic Church that hear confessions -- detailing her failings. In one she lamented her doubts about Jesus. She talked about praying and hearing nothing in response: “...but as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see--Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves but does not speak…”
The desperate father in Mark 9 (vs.14-29) is, in some ways, the opposite of Teresa. He is not remembered as a great believer. He is not held up for his faith and service to God. He is known for his doubt, while Teresa’s doubt only came to light after her death. But we also only know about this distraught, nameless father because the Gospel of Mark recorded his story.
Mark is the gospel of secrets. Jesus is constantly telling people to keep his secret. He tells the demons he drives out, the people he heals and even his disciples to not tell anyone about him. In the scholarly circles this is called the Messianic Secret and there are numerous theories about what it might mean. For some reason, Jesus wanted to keep things quiet and Mark thought it was important enough to share.
Most scholars think that Mark was the first gospel written. It’s the shortest and both Luke and Matthew borrow heavily from Mark. The first believers had told stories about Jesus and his life. They shared the stories that were most meaningful and heard other stories. Mark, and the other gospel writers, compiled the stories about Jesus into a written form for a specific purpose.
When the confessional letters of Teresa came out it started a media tizzy. Here was this great woman expressing doubt about her faith. She had given nearly seven decades of her life to the church, lived in poverty, and was revered by millions as an example of love. Yet she doubted. She confessed to feeling alone. She wondered if Jesus was there, if he would answer her prayers.
The early church didn’t know what the future held. When Mark wrote the Gentiles were just starting to be included and persecution had already scattered believers and threatened their lives. Riots were starting where Christians preached and believers were being imprisoned by the government.
When Mark wrote, and emphasized the secret of Jesus, he may have done it to show that faith isn’t easy. When Jesus told the parable of the sower to his disciples (4:1-20), they didn’t understand what he meant. He explained to them that the parables were designed to keep the secret of the kingdom.
But why would Jesus keep it all a secret? Why would he try to prevent people from understanding? Wasn’t he supposed to offer life for everyone?
Mother Teresa begged that her confessional letters be destroyed. She didn’t want people to be swayed in their faith by her struggles. She wanted people to look to Jesus and not her. As she understood belief, it wasn’t necessary to have all the right answers, but to have the right goal.
We don’t know for sure why Jesus kept things a secret for a time. We don’t know why Mark emphasized the secret. It could be that Mark remembered what it was like to doubt. We have some tantalizing clues about his life (Mark 14:51-52, Acts 13:13). He may have watched Jesus be arrested and run away. He started on a mission trip with Paul and Barnabas, but left them early on in the journey.
Maybe Mark knew what it was like to doubt. Maybe he gave us the story of the unbelieving father because he wanted other people to know that doubt isn’t fatal and running away isn’t final. Maybe he emphasized the secret of Jesus to entice us to keep searching.
The people around Jesus who had everything figured out and didn’t question at all were the same ones that had him killed. It was the Pharisees and Scribes that had no use for Jesus’ parables and questions. They wanted clear-cut answers. Are you the Messiah? Yes or no. Jesus refused to play their games and refused to offer certainty.
The unbelieving father shows us that doubt is not a fault, questioning is not a flaw, and searching for truth is not unfaithful. But he also shows us that there is risk involved. Living a life of faithful unbelief is risky. It means that no conclusion is safe. No belief is rock-solid. No teaching is beyond question.
It’s exhausting to question everything all the time. It’s not really possible to live life without any conclusions. Even the unbelieving father had convictions that drove him to do what he did. He loved his son and believed that there must be a cure. He acted on those beliefs and followed them to their conclusion. That’s where he met Jesus.
I’m not trying to suggest that you live a life of complete chaos. I’m suggesting that you follow your beliefs and see where they lead you. Some will lead to dead ends, cause cognitive dissonance, and prompt you to ask hard questions. Some will lead in circles and offer no real answers. But some, if you follow them long enough, will lead you to find Jesus where he will ask you, just as he asked the unbelieving father: What do you want me to do for you?
What historical or fictional character would you most want to meet? Why?
Whom do you look up to? Why is that?
Do you tend to prefer a settled life or one that’s more chaotic? Why is that?
How would you feel if your confessions were made into a book after you die?
How do you feel about the doubts of Mother Teresa?
What is keeping you from questioning? What is driving you to question?