READ : Matthew 17:14-20
Have you ever thought that God could feel frustrated? With God, it doesn’t take a lot of faith to do great things for God. But our unbelief makes him impatient!
Jesus, together with his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, has just been up on the Mount of Transfiguration. It was a shining moment – literally. Jesus’ entire appearance was transformed, and he radiated dazzling light as the inner reality of his divine nature was momentarily revealed to the awe-struck disciples. A mountaintop experience, as we say.
But such things don’t last. Peter’s suggestion that he erect tabernacles there on the mountaintop was an attempt to prolong the moment. Why go back down into the world’s squalor? Peter must have been thinking. Why not just stay up here on the mountaintop and let the world come to us? Maybe we could even charge admission to those who wanted to peek inside the tent and admire Jesus’ glory.
But Peter’s foolish thinking is cut short by the voice of God himself, who bears witness to his beloved Son Jesus, and commands the disciples to listen to him. And just that quickly the moment passes, the glory fades, Jesus reverts to his ordinary appearance, and the air on the mountaintop is no longer charged with grandeur. Jesus leads his disciples down from the mountain into the lowlands of everyday existence, where most of our lives are spent, where, in fact, Jesus is heading toward his own personal agony at the cross. And then, as if to underscore the fact that suffering comes before glory, as soon as Jesus and his disciples return to earth they are confronted once again with the inescapable misery of the world.
And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” . . . And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Matthew 17:9, 14-20
“Lord, Have Mercy”
No sooner have Jesus, Peter, James, and John returned to civilization than a man rushes up, falls on his knees, and implores Jesus to help his son, who suffers from terrible, life-threatening convulsions. Apparently this father had already tried to get help from the other disciples, who were waiting below while Jesus and his inner circle had been on the mountain. But they were powerless in the face of the boy’s disorder. So the desperate Father comes with a familiar cry, “Lord, have mercy!”
Jesus’ reaction is really quite strange. He sounds upset, impatient, out of sorts. “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (v. 17). In one sense, that’s a very human reaction, isn’t it? Jesus is fed up with his whole crooked, unbelieving society. “How long do I have to put up with you?” he asks.
But what exactly set him off? There was the suffering itself; Jesus consistently displayed anger and even hatred whenever he confronted evil and its consequences. But here he seems especially irritated by the ineffectiveness of his disciples. Back in chapter 10 Jesus had commissioned them and given them authority to act in his name, to heal, and even to cast out demons (Matthew 10:1). So it’s understandable that he’s irate at their pathetic performance; after all, he’s only human. Well, actually, not only human. Jesus’ reaction here is not merely the venting of a frustrated leader; it’s also a window into the heart of God. God is frustrated by our perversity. God is upset at our persistent unbelief, our prayerlessness, our inactivity in the face of human need, our powerlessness to overcome the world’s evil.
This whole incident is not so much a story about divine healing as it is a teaching moment for Jesus’ followers. The emphasis is not simply on the misery of the suffering boy or even the anger of Jesus, but on the inability of the disciples to help; that’s where the focus squarely lies. “I brought him to your disciples,” the man explains, “and they could not heal him” (v. 16). “Why could we not?” the disciples later ask Jesus privately (v. 19). In both places the key words are “could not.” Literally what Matthew says is they were “unable” or “lacking power.” So something is missing from the disciples’ spiritual arsenal, leaving them ineffective when confronted by evil and suffering.
So Jesus turns this question about his disciples’ inability into a teachable moment. He diagnoses their problem in an instant: it’s “because of your little faith,” he tells them (v. 20). Their faith was too small. Think about what this whole thing implies, what must have happened while Jesus was away on the mountain. The disciples must have tried to help the demon-possessed boy, or their failure would not have been obvious. So what did they do? Did they command the spirit to leave the child? Did they rebuke the demon, as Jesus seems to have done? Whatever it was they said or did, nothing happened. The boy remained unchanged. It was immediately and embarrassingly apparent that the disciples didn’t know what they were doing. And according to Jesus’ statement, the reason for the disciples’ failure was that they were acting without faith. They tried to do it on their own, in other words, without committing themselves with whole-hearted trust to God in prayer.
In all honesty, don’t we try to do that as well? I know I’m like that. I have trouble really believing – not so much in God’s theoretical power to deliver, but in his willingness to do so through me, or my efforts. So I pray half-heartedly, without much faith. Someone has said, “The world is full of half-believing unbelievers, and half-unbelieving believers.” You know what, that’s me to a “T” – a half-unbelieving believer. It’s so much easier, and safer, just to act in my own strength, to rely on my own understanding, to trust in my own expertise or experience, and then if these things aren’t enough to solve some problem or meet some need, to just give up and walk away. It’s so much harder, and more risky, to cast myself entirely upon God in faith, believing that he can and will do wonders.
Jesus not only diagnoses his disciples’ problem, he offers a solution. “Truly I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed . . .” (v. 20). Mustard-seed faith, he says; that’s all it takes. Just the tiniest bit of faith and you will work wonders. But wait minute. Jesus has just said that our problem literally is “little faith.” Now he says the solution to the problem is to have . . . a little faith. So what’s the difference? I think the difference is in the way it’s exercised.
The difference comes down to prayer. The difference is turning away from ourselves and placing all our trust, however strong or weak that faith is, however great or small, in God alone. I don’t believe Jesus is telling us here that the secret to spiritual effectiveness is just to believe harder, or more. That sort of thing always makes me think of the time I took my kids to see the stage version of Peter Pan. The dramatic tension of the play reaches its peak in a scene where the little fairy Tinker Bell has died. At that point Peter turns to the audience and suggests that if we all just believe, Tink will come back to life. So of course everyone screws their eyes shut and holds their breath, and tries to believe as hard as we can. That’s not the sort of thing Jesus means when he speaks here about the faith that can move mountains.
I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and nothing will be impossible for you. (v. 20).
Praying faith that sincerely trusts and then puts everything in God’s hands – that’s the kind of faith that can move mountains. Jesus does not give us a straight equation here. He doesn’t say, “You can do great works if you have great faith. But if you’re not working wonders it must mean you don’t have enough faith.” That’s the way some preachers talk, but it is not what Jesus says. He says if you just have a little faith, a mustard seed-sized faith, and that faith moves you to pray to the God who works wonders, then wonderful things can happen. “And nothing will be impossible for you,” he concludes (v. 20).
Doesn’t that promise a little too much? But the truth is, nothing will be impossible, not for us, but for God, working his sovereign will through us. That’s what the angel Gabriel told Mary when she asked how she, a virgin, could conceive and bear a child. Nothing will be impossible for God. It isn’t our strength, our ability, even the greatness of our faith, or the power of our prayers, that does the impossible. It is the power of God within us.
So, Lord, give us faith, and teach us to pray!