Friday, August 19, 2011

Matthew 17:14–20 (and 21?)

Matthew 17:14–20 (ESV): Jesus Heals a Boy with a Demon


In this passage a man comes to Jesus because he has an epileptic son, and he wants Jesus to heal the boy. The problem is that the man brought the boy to Jesus’ disciples, and they weren’t able to heal him. Jesus’ answer surprised me, when I first read it:

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.” (verse 17 (ESV))
He then rebukes the demon which immediately comes out of the boy, who is healed instantly. When the disciples ask Jesus why they weren’t able to cast out the demon, he makes clear the reason for his earlier outburst:

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.” (verse 20 (ESV))
The ESV footnote says that in some manuscripts this is followed by a verse 21, which says:

But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.
Although you’ll notice that if you search Bible Gateway for Matthew 17:21 (ESV) you won’t get any results, so obviously the ESV editors didn’t consider the manuscripts which include verse 21 to be reliable enough for inclusion.


The first thing I find interesting about this passage is that the man comes to Jesus with a complaint that his son is an epileptic (verse 15 (ESV)), but then the passage goes on to talk about Jesus casting out a demon, and the fact that his disciples were unable to cast the demon out. So which is it? Demon possession, or epilepsy? Or was it epilepsy that was blamed on demon possession—and, if so, how many other “demon possessions” in the Gospels were really epilepsy? Some were obviously demons, since they talked to Jesus, but were there others, perhaps, that weren’t demons?

It gets even more interesting when you compare this verse to other translations, for example the NIV:

“Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.” (verse 15 (NIV))
Comparing it to other versions I see that the most common translation is to use the word “epileptic” (e.g. ESV, GNT, NKJV), some use seizures (e.g. NIV, GW), some say that the boy is “a lunatic” (e.g. NASB, KJV).

I consider this a purely theoretical question, since either way the result is the same: Jesus healed the boy, whether he was healing him of demon possession, epilepsy (or lunacy!), or all of the above.

All of that for what is not even the point of the passage: Why couldn’t the disciples heal the boy? Jesus lambastes them in this passage; “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These are his disciples he’s talking about. And let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t telling his disciples that they have lots of faith but just not quite enough for this particular case; later in the passage he goes on to say that if the disciples have faith as small as a mustard seed they could tell a mountain to move itself and it would—in other words, they have no faith. Or rather, when they tried to heal the boy, they had no faith that the healing would work.

But maybe we should stop to talk about the word “faith.” Reading this passage in isolation might make “faith” sound like something you have to muster up; like the force in the Star Wars movies. People read this passage as if Jesus is saying to the disciples, “if you can build up enough ‘faith’ you can do anything you set your mind to do.” But what is “faith”? I’ll give a definition here that will probably not go nearly far enough for some people, but I’ll give it anyway: Faith is believing that God can and will do what He said he would do. It’s believing that He is who He said He is. It’s trusting Him to do what is right. The word “faith” has no meaning on its own, in isolation—you have to have faith in something. It combines the concepts of believing (but what do you believe?) and trust (but who or what are you trusting?).

When Jesus said that the disciples that they couldn’t heal the boy because of their “little faith,” he means that they didn’t actually, truly, trust God to heal the boy. They might have had some faith; they probably approached the boy with confidence that he’d soon be healed. I don’t know how the situation went down from there; maybe God didn’t heal the boy as quickly as they’d expected, or maybe they simply tried to do it on their own, instead of trusting in God. In any event, when the boy didn’t get healed they obviously gave up. “Oh well,” they thought, “I guess this one can’t be healed!” This isn’t a case of God choosing not to heal the boy—which does sometimes happen; it’s not always in His will to heal everyone who asks for healing—this is a case of the disciples not having faith that it could be done.

We should also not get too carried away by the part about telling a mountain to go and move itself if we have enough faith; again, we’re tempted to think of “faith” in this instance as if it’s magic. If you screw yourself up hard enough to believe that it will happen, then you can make it happen. But faith, in the Bible, is always in the context of faith in God. Do you truly believe that God wants to move that mountain? Is it consistent with who He reveals Himself to be in the Scriptures? Has He said that He would do it? We’re talking about faith here; the disciples couldn’t have healed that boy, but God could have. I can’t move that mountain, but God can—if it’s in His will. (To me, however, it doesn’t seem like it’s in line with His character, as revealed in the Bible; I, for one, will never ask Him to do it. I’m too busy asking Him to help me with every other aspect of my life…)

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