For the following reflection I rely on Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus and his chosen three disciples had just come down from Mt Tabor where Jesus was transfigured. Down from the mountain of glory into the valley of suffering and confusion. The text says that Jesus went toward the gathered crowd, and at the same time a man came toward Jesus. These two uses of the word “toward” express the search for one another and for a face-to-face encounter between man and God.
The man came up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him. The man instinctually knows that, in dealing with Jesus, the heart’s adoration is the necessary context for a prayer of petition. It is the best way of putting oneself in the position of deep and true relationship with God—the interior attitude of total self-surrender and the resulting receptivity. The man’s first words are: Lord, have mercy! It is the most fundamental of all Christian prayers. It includes an act of faith that sees the personal presence of God abiding and acting in the person of Jesus and it acknowledges man’s extreme and continual need to cling to the mercy of God, and to God’s power and willingness to heal.
Then the father of the boy explained to Jesus his condition: he often falls in fire or in water. These elements form a biblical symbol for the totality of all dangers, precisely those most dire threats from which the Lord has promised to deliver his faithful ones. God said through the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters I will be with you…they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned…” (43:1-2).
So far this story reads like many other miracle accounts. But after presenting the problem and asking for help, the father drops this bombshell, to the great consternation of Jesus’ disciples: “I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” Perhaps they were hoping that their bungled attempt at healing would go unnoticed. But now the Master knows. This pushes Jesus’ patience to the limit (if it were possible) and He exclaimed—not to the nameless crowd but directly to his own disciples: “O faithless and perverse generation; how long am I to be with you? How long can I endure you?” What if Jesus stood before us today, saying: How long can I endure you? His disciples were his specially chosen ones. He rebuked his own disciples before He rebuked the demon. Jesus denounces most woundingly those He loves most, those He has been painstakingly and intimately molding with the secret touch of his hands. But they still didn’t get it. Later He would say to Philip: “You have been with me all this time and still you do not know Me?” Jesus’ disciples had not yet internalized the truth of who He was to the point that this reality could transform them interiorly. Thus they could not heal the boy.
Jesus was trying to teach them that they can communicate only the life that they have come to possess within themselves, and that not even the invocation of the name of Jesus will be efficacious in the absence of faith in the soul and love in the heart. This is the structure of the Christian experience. No one can give what he doesn’t have. To startle us out of our lethargy and pious accommodations, Jesus is likely to turn the tables on us at any moment, compelling us to see things from his perspective.
So Jesus commanded his embarrassed disciples to bring the boy to Him, and He immediately cast out the demon that was causing the boy’s illness. Jesus’ compassion toward the suffering boy has as its goal not only the deliverance and healing of the boy, but also the awakening of the faith of his disciples by their vision of the greatness of God’s power presently working both in Jesus and in those who believe. This is the anticipated power of the Resurrection, casting back its healing rays upon the earthly life and deeds of Jesus, seeking out the lost and wounded so as to embrace them and heal them and bring them home to the Father.
The disciples, still stung by their failure, asked Jesus—out of earshot of the crowd, lest they be humiliated again—why they were not able to heal the boy. Jesus said it was because of their lack of faith. If they had even a tiny bit of faith nothing would have been impossible for them, He said. The evangelist uses a little play on words, for “not able” and “impossible” are forms of the same word. Why were we not able? they said. Nothing is impossible, said Jesus, if you only have faith. The presence of lively faith effects a conversion of human incapacity into the power to accomplish all that God wills.
In the end, it is the power of Christ that is the only real power, one that we must access by faith. Only the presence and will of Christ can dispel the power of darkness from our souls. In all our distress, we must go to Jesus, invoke his name ardently, cast ourselves at his feet, hear our own sin condemned by his anger, and finally allow Jesus’ commanding rebuke to resonate in every ailing fiber of our being. Only then shall we be healed. That will be the hour of our liberation. We must not be afraid to confront and accept even the most frightful diagnosis concerning our interior state, so long as that prophetic insight is coming from the lips of the One who has the will and power to remedy it. As we see in this Gospel account, Jesus is always ready to do it, provided we bravely grant Him access to our diseased interior.
We can have confidence in the Lord, for He came to enter into the condition of our suffering, to share it with us, to give it meaning, and finally to raise us out of it for an eternity of life and joy in his heavenly paradise. If He has to rebuke us along the way, let us simply accept it and learn from it. He does not stand above us but is with us in our stumbling inadequacy. Even though Jesus manifested his omnipotence by casting out the demon and healing the boy, this Gospel passage ends with Jesus saying that He Himself will soon be suffering, bearing all our sins and sorrows in Himself. And who would deliver Him? Only his Father, but not until He would pass through agony and death in order to be exalted unto the glory of the resurrection. Resurrection will be our glory too, if we only believe in Him and live our faith with devotion and diligence, accepting the Cross as the way to resurrection.
Finally, to live by faith is to cease relying on ourselves, our own ideas or ways of doing things. The disciples had to learn that. They were still without faith when they asked: Why couldn’t we cast it out ourselves? Faith doesn’t mean seeing what Jesus does and then trying to imitate Him. It means allowing Jesus to act in and through us by his own power, and according to his own will—which means we have to renounce our own will if faith is to bear fruit in our lives. So let us deeply and joyfully receive the mustard seed of the grace of Christ into the soil of our souls, where it can grow into a fruitful Tree of Life, and all things will be possible with Him who comes to heal and save us.