Faith That Moves Mountains: Matthew 17:14-20

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured 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 tell you, if you have faith the size of a 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 17:14-20 (NRSV)

Although we are not specifically told, the flow of this story has Jesus and a few of his disciples coming down the mountain where they witnessed the Transfiguration.  We are not told which mountain this was.  Early church tradition suggests Mount Tabor, and some commentators have suggested Mount Hermon (as it is the highest mountain in the Caesarea Philippi area).

As they come down the mountain, a crowd is waiting for them, and that’s when the man tells Jesus about his son with epilepsy and how Jesus’ disciples (presumably the ones still at the base of the mountain who didn’t go up with Jesus) couldn’t heal him.

What follows is another wonderful snapshot of historical, human Jesus.  He gets very frustrated and says some things that he might not have in cooler moments.  I love it when the actual story shakes up our preconceived notions about what Jesus must have been like, which are often personifications of abstractions (e.g. Jesus was always kind, Jesus was always gentle, etc.).

Although this was in answer to the man’s story, we have to assume that it was directed to the disciples.  The man is not faithless; he brought his son to the disciples and, ultimately, Jesus for help.  Coming to Jesus for healing or bringing someone for healing has often been called out by Jesus as a sign of great faith.

The disciples, by contrast, seemed unable to help the man, and this is just too much for Jesus to contain.  He lumps them in with the faithless and perverse generation of the Pharisees, the scribes, the Temple regime – everything that embodies the unfaithfulness of Israel and that the coming kingdom of God will displace.  Jesus is, in effect, saying, “You’re just like them.  You’re just like the people who don’t believe – the people who oppose me.”

This may seem like a rather extreme accusation given the circumstances.  The disciples have tried and failed to miraculously heal a boy of epilepsy.  It’s hard to fault them for this.  Most people don’t succeed in miraculously healing anybody.  If I were sick, and you prayed over me, and I was not healed on the spot, I would probably not accuse you of belonging to a faithless and perverse generation.

In order to see how Jesus ended up where he ended up, we have to step into that first century Near Eastern worldview.

In the first century, the division between “natural” and “supernatural” was thin to nonexistent.  Yes, people experienced the same world we experience today.  They may not have always understood why the world works the way it does, but they experienced the same physical laws that we experience.  Gravity, liquids and solids, the positions of the stars, the day and night cycle, disease and death – even many centuries prior to the scientific method, people did not have illusions about what commonly happens in the natural world.

At the same time, behind all this mundane activity was a (normally) hidden, spiritual world.  What happened in the world was an external manifestation of what was happening in this invisible aspect of reality.  For example, if one nation defeated another, it meant the first nations gods were stronger that day than the other nation’s gods, even though nothing ostensibly supernatural may have happened.  The outcome we could see and experience had behind it a spiritual aspect that we could not see and could (usually) only determine after the fact.

It is this context that defines people who saw visions or dreamed dreams.  For them, the veil was pulled back, and they were allowed to see what was going on behind the scenes in a world that was so alien to them that they resorted to images, and what strange and powerful images those would be.

When it came to sickness, if you asked someone in Galilee or those northern regions, “Does this boy have epilepsy or a demon?” many would likely have told you, “Yes.”  Those were not separate explanations to them.  One was a physical manifestation of the other.

In the same way, the oppression of the Roman Empire was viewed as the external manifestation of a darker, spiritual phenomenon.  If Rome was the body, then Satan was the spirit.  He had his own kingdom, his own soldiers, his own power structures, and these things had their physical manifestations in the form of the things that oppressed Israel.

Because of this, when Jesus would heal a sick person or drive a demon out, it was more than just a kind act or a generic demonstration of God’s power.  It was an invasion of sorts.  Jesus’ authority over these things showed that the hoped-for kingdom was imminent.

Around this time of year, we sometimes talk about how Jesus defied everyone’s expectations of how the kingdom would come.  In some aspects, this is true, but it would be a big mistake to assume that Jesus did not come to change Israel’s concrete political situation.  That’s a division we make:  Jesus came to do spiritual good, not physical good.  Those are two, separate things.

But for first century Israel, he came, in God’s name, to displace the oppressive powers of the world with the kingdom of God.  It was holistic.  There was no separation.  And when people saw healing and the driving out of spirits, they saw the invasion and impending victory of God in the world that the prophets longed to see – a comprehensive victory that would result in the poor being made rich, those who had lost all they had receiving it back, the powerless judging the nations, the meek inheriting the land.

This is, perhaps, why Jesus is so frustrated with his disciples.  It isn’t that they didn’t have faith in some general sense or that they couldn’t “faith heal” someone; it’s that they did not believe that the kingdom was coming.

And if you don’t believe the kingdom is coming, then you don’t believe Jesus, because that’s all he’s been talking about.  And if you don’t believe Jesus, well, you’re just like everyone else in that faithless and wicked generation.

Remember some time ago when Jesus had sent his disciples out to do the very thing we’ve been discussing:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)

After this, after all the signs, after all the teachings, they still struggle to believe that the kingdom is coming.

We’re not told why this was such a struggle for at least some of the disciples.  Maybe some of them have been on the fence this whole time.  Or, maybe, some of them are starting to get discouraged with time.  Jesus is spending a lot of time preaching and ministering, but not a lot of time bringing the Temple to heel and demanding fealty from the Emperor, and he just keeps… not doing that.

Maybe some of them (looking in your direction, Judas) were hoping for a Messiah who would deliver something fast, violent, and decisive.  Even John the Baptist himself seemed to struggle with this.  How could Jesus be the Messiah if Herod were still in power and John was in his prison, about to be executed?

As for Jesus’ part, he absolutely sees this work as vital to the salvation of Israel.  He has to free from everything that would prevent them from believing his gospel message, and he isn’t done with that, yet.

The man never says that his son has a demon, but that’s how Jesus cures him.  He rebukes the demon (who leaves) and the physical afflictions disappear.  Another demonstration that Jesus is who he says he is, that his message is true, and that he is exactly the person who can and will execute God’s current stage in the mission.  The powers of earth are right to fear this man, because even the forces behind them can’t defy his will.

Perhaps having been chastened enough in public, the disciples pull Jesus aside and ask him why they couldn’t heal they boy, and Jesus ties it back to their lack of faith.  He then makes a statement so dramatic that it has found its way into modern expressions: if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move this mountain, and nothing will be impossible for you.

A mustard seed is very small; a mountain is very big.  Hence the dramatic impact of the statement.

Mark has Jesus giving this statement at the Temple in Jerusalem.  And, interestingly, so does Matthew.  Jesus will say this again, later.

This is a very believable thing.  My employees can recite for you several of the stories I tell, because I tell them over and over again for different audiences to make different points.  It’s quite likely that Jesus would say similar things in different situations.

What’s interesting about this situation, though, is that when Jesus is on the Temple mountain in Jerusalem, he tells his disciples that they could tell that mountain to be thrown into the sea, and it would be.  In other words, Jesus is predicting the unthinkable – that the Temple will be destroyed when the kingdom comes.

Here, Jesus is talking about the mountain of Transfiguration, and he tells the disciples that it will be moved from here to there.

Significant?  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just an offhand choice of words.

Or, maybe, the difference is significant.  Maybe Jesus is trying to tell his disciples, struggling to believe, that all it will take is for the barest smidgen of faith to take what they briefly saw in the Transfiguration and move it forward to a new location.

We can’t see where Jesus is pointing when he says this, but I wonder if he was pointing toward Jerusalem.

Consider This

  1. In the ancient world, people saw a very close relationship between the physical and the spiritual.  Is this an antiquated worldview we no longer need, injecting our natural world with a reality that simply isn’t there?  Or have we lost something important if we reduce the world to what we can empirically determine?
  2. Oppression continues to take various forms in the world, both overt and subtle.  If we claim to continue the story of God’s people, do we have obligations to confront them?  What does that look like?  What does that look like in your specific sphere of impact?