And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him." Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as 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. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."
- Matthew 17:14-21
On Saturday, we read that following Jesus' prophecy to the disciples of His Passion, death and Resurrection, after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid." When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead." And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.
And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him." Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. My study bible tells us that sickness in Scripture is often connected to demonic activity. As we will see, ancient commentators (specifically Origen) saw this passage referring specifically to exorcism, where the illness named here as epilepsy is actually the effect of particular demonic activity in the man's son. This father kneels before Christ and shows humility, but he lacks faith. Christ's rebuke is directed here more to the father, says my study bible, whose faith is more lacking than the disciples who have been attempting to heal his son. However, in a recent reading, Jesus has said to the Pharisees and Sadducees who tested Him, "A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah." His statement here about a faithless generation seems to reflect the lack of faith He's found in general, especially at this point in His ministry. What we notice here also is the destructive nature of this particular illness, an indication of demonic activity; the son "often falls into the fire and often into the water."
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as 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. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting." Jesus did not rebuke His disciples in public, but does so privately, giving us an example of a good leader and teacher. This is directed to the nine disciples who could not cast out the demon. St. John Chrysostom points out that "the pillars" of faith -- Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:9) -- weren't included in this rebuke, as they'd just come from the Mount of Transfiguration with Christ. Jesus' statement about moving a mountain is often used out of context. But in the context of the reading, Origen comments that this mountain refers to "hostile powers that have their being in a flood of great wickedness, such as are settled down, so to speak, in some souls of various people." He goes on to comment that faith as a mustard seed is like that of Abraham, whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness. To understand the image of the mustard seed, we refer to Christ's parable of the mustard seed, in this reading. The fact that Jesus refers to prayer and fasting as weapons for such a healing indicates that we are indeed speaking of righteousness in spiritual struggle -- Origen's suggestion that the "mountains" are indeed those "hostile powers" seems to be substantiated by the references in context. To "move mountains" says Origen, is to remove the burden of oppression from the sufferer and cast it into "the abyss." For this, he writes, one's own righteousness is a necessary condition.
St. Paul uses this phrase as well, when he writes, "Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2). What we see in context isn't an impossible prescription given here by Christ that somehow we fall short if any and all miracles aren't available to us for performance, but rather is all about spiritual struggle and personal righteousness through faith. It is made all the more poignant, and put into an even greater context by St. Paul, who writes of love as the greatest virtue and spiritual fruit of all -- even in direct comparison with the faith that removes mountains. And in some sense, right here in the connections to this reading and this teaching by Jesus, we have the whole of this new covenant, of the gospel message: that faith is essential for our lives and well-being and for helping others, but everything comes under the context and direction and substance of love. St. John will teach us that God is love. Jesus will teach that first, love of God, and second, love of neighbor, are the two greatest commandments, and that on these two together hang all the Law and the Prophets (22:36-40). We will never understand Christ at all if we do not understand the reality that He is pointing us to, the great fruit of faith -- and what and whom it is in which we have faith and whom we serve. We must "know what manner of spirit we are of" (see Luke 9:55-56). We will never understand the power of faith if we do not understand the connection between faith and love, nor will we really make head or tail of His teachings and commandments. He is here as liberator, to free us from the oppression of evil, the mountains that can oppress -- and in an act of the greatest love, He will give His life to do so, as very friend to us. Here must be the root of faith and the power of faith: to respond to God's love with love. In this is evil and spiritual darkness overthrown; in this righteousness born of love of God we can find the power to help remove the mountains that oppress others. He is the great light in the darkness that shows us the way, His Way. This is what His ministry, His very Incarnation as human being, is all about. Sometimes love, in all its strength and commandments, is difficult to understand or discern. This is especially so when it casts a great dazzling light on the darkness we don't want to see for what it is, or in its action that seeks to cast off the mountain we may be well used to having about.