Matthew 17: 14-20 A Little Faith is Enough

By © Ralph Hammann – Wikimedia Commons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39699229

Matthew 17: 14-20

14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 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. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” 17 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.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 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.”

This is another scene in Matthew where the common interpretation of the scene involves Jesus berating his disciples and where I am going to suggest a significantly different reading. Translation into English involves several assumptions and the prevailing assumption of Jesus’ dismissive nature of his disciples continues to be seen here. Perhaps Jesus humiliates his disciples in front of the crowd and in private out of frustration, or perhaps, as my reading will suggest, his frustration resides in the forces that resist him and his response to his disciples is one of encouragement. Throughout this reading I’ve highlighted areas where Jesus may be pushing his disciples to claim the authority they have as his disciples over the powers that oppose the approaching kingdom of heaven, and these ‘little faith ones’ even without Peter, James and John present, attempt to help this father who brings his son to them. Like Peter stepping out of the boat, perhaps these disciples are continuing to make strides to approach Jesus in faith.

Comparing Mark’s narration of this scene to Matthew’s one can see both Matthew’s excision of details from the story but some very important, to Matthew’s narration, additions which are centered around this private discussion with the disciples about faith. The exorcism of the spirit which causes the man’s son to have convulsions, in Matthew, sets the scene for the contrast between the generation without faith and these little faith ones who may not realize that they are able to move mountains. They may feel that their only skill is to make a place for Jesus, but they are invited to listen to Jesus sharing with them what their little faith can do.

This scene comes after Jesus descends the mountain with Peter, James and John after the Transfiguration, and they come from their isolation to the crowd and the troubles down below. Matthew does not include Mark’s note that the scribes were arguing with the disciples in the crowd but instead immediately presents us with a father pleading to Jesus on behalf of his son. Interestingly in this scene there is only one person waiting for healing from Jesus in the crowd and perhaps the disciples have been able to heal others, but regardless we are confronted with a man who comes and kneels before Jesus, addressing him as Lord and asking on behalf of his child. In Matthew, this man’s address to Jesus places him with others like the centurion and the Canaanite who appeal to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and we expect that his appeal will be heard and acted upon. Unlike Mark where the man calls Jesus ‘teacher’ and has to ask Jesus to ‘help me with my unbelief’ in Matthew we are given every indication that this father is open to what Jesus is able to do and the presence of God’s healing power in him. In Matthew’s telling the father is not the faithless one, instead he has faith in a generation without faith. He comes to Jesus’ disciples initially and when they are not powerful enough. He refuses to be satisfied until he comes to the source and Jesus heals his son.

Most modern translations render the son’s condition as epilepsy, but that assigns a modern understanding to a term that is literally ‘moon seeking’ or the more familiar but misunderstood ‘moonstruck.’ The Greek goddess of the moon, Selene, was often associated with madness and sending demons on those who dishonored her and while ‘moonstruck’ in English is often associated with being in an irrational state due to falling in love, this ‘moonstruck’ one is possessed by a spirit, at least in the understanding of the time, which causes its host to lose control and fall into fire or water injuring itself. In a porous world where spirits, both good and evil, are able to act upon those a person, like Jesus, where the power of God’s spirit resides is where one can turn for aid for those afflicted.

Many scholars hear Jesus’ answer to the father as the first condemnation of the disciples in this scene, which I find intriguing because Jesus’ complaint is literally ‘O generation of no faith and distortion.’ Especially when you look at the other times Jesus mentions the ‘generation’ he is never referring to his disciples[1] one could argue that he is referring to either the Pharisees, scribes and those who oppose him or to the resistance to the kingdom of heaven in general but I believe if Matthew wanted us to know Jesus was frustrated with his disciples inability to handle the father’s appeal in his absence he would have directed that frustration at the disciples instead of the generation where sons are bound by a spirit that makes them lose control of their body and endanger themselves and others. Jesus’ frustration is either directed at the resistance to the kingdom of heaven or the delay in that kingdom’s realization among the disciples, the crowd and ultimately the nations. Jesus acts quickly in this instance rebuking the demon and the child is healed ‘from that hour’ which the NRSV’s ‘instantly’ captures the time aspect of but not the continuing future movement of the phrase. This child will not be like others in this generation where a demon is cast out, presumably by the exorcists of this age, and the demon returns with seven more and takes up residence making the child worse off than before. (12: 43-45)

When the disciples approach Jesus on their own and ask, ‘by what means (dia) were we are not powerful enough to cast it out?’ most interpreters assume Jesus chastises the disciples for their lack of faith. I’ve argued throughout this reading for a more charitable reading of oligopistos and its derived terms as ‘little faith ones’[2] where Jesus uses this as a term of encouragement and endearment rather than the typically harsh “you of little faith.” This term always is used for disciples and again Jesus here modifies the usage slightly to “by means of[3] (dia) the little faith (oligopistian) of you.” Perhaps instead of Jesus saying that their little faith is smaller than a mustard seed and that is why they are unable to do incredible things, Jesus here tells the disciples their little faith is all they need to handle this spirit or to say to the mountain Jesus just descended to depart and the mountain will depart, and nothing they are not powerful enough for. The Greek dunami (to be powerful, able) sits behind the father’s statemt of the disciples’ initial inability, their question of their insufficient power and Jesus encouragement that they have all the power they need. If they can command mountains to depart they can command a spirit in a moon-seeking child to come out. Instead of criticizing the disciples for their inability, perhaps Jesus is preparing them for the great things they will do in the future when they are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of heaven’s approach to all the nations and to teach them what they have learned from Jesus.

[1] Matthew 11: 16; 12: 39, 41, 42, 45; 16:4; 23:36; 24:34

[2] See my comments on Matthew 6: 19-34; 8: 23-27; 14: 22-33 and 16: 1-12.

[3] NRSV and many translations render dia as because but it is a term of agency or means here and should be rendered either through or by means of. Most translations assume this is a direct answer to the disciples question and that the ‘why’ in English needs a ‘because’ in English. In Greek it is more a question “by what means…’ ‘by this means…’

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