Though Jesus had empowered the 12 apostles to cast out demons in his name, nine of them failed to do it from a boy. While they tried it, Jesus was with Peter, James, and John on a high mountain where Jesus transfigured. When they came down, Jesus healed the boy. The nine asked Jesus why they could not do it. He explained that in such severe cases special preparations like prayer and fasting are necessary. The miracle worker and the recipient should have faith. Let us ask God to increase our faith and help us to supplement it from our part with prayer and fasting.
The Healing of a Boy with a Demon
(Matthew 17:14) When they met the people, a man approached Jesus, knelt before him and said, (15) “Lord, have pity on my son who is an epileptic and suffers much. He often falls into fire and often into water. (16) I brought him to your disciples but they could not heal him.” (17) Jesus replied, “You, faithless and evil people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” (18) And Jesus commanded the evil spirit to leave the boy, and the boy was immediately healed. (19) The disciples then gathered around Jesus and asked him privately, “Why could we not drive out the spirit?” (20) Jesus said to them, “Because you have little faith. I say to you: if only you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell that mountain to move from here to there, and the mountain would obey. Nothing would be impossible to you. (21) (Only prayer and fasting can drive out this kind of spirit.)”
The synoptic gospels report this incident (Mk 9:14-29; Lk 9:37-42) in the same context where Jesus, Peter, James, and John were coming down from a mountain after the transfiguration of Jesus. That shows the importance this message had in the early church.
(Mt 17:14) When they met the people, a man approached Jesus, knelt before him and said…
When they met the people
Matthew gives a summarized statement of the coming of Jesus and the three apostles from the mountain to the valley to meet the other disciples and the demon-possessed boy’s father. Luke states that the team came from the mountain on the next day of transfiguration. This must be because the transfiguration had happened at night. That is why Peter suggested making three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for their stay on the mountaintop (Mt 17:4). Mark adds that they came down to the other disciples who were waiting there along with a sizeable crowd. The Scribes were arguing with the disciples. When Jesus asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” (Mk 9:16), the demon- possessed boy’s father answered. The argument was about the disciples’ failure in healing the boy in Jesus’ name. The Scribes were discrediting Jesus for the failure of his disciples and were questioning the nine disciples on their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
This event reminds us of the Mount Sinai experience of Moses and the sin of the golden calf under Aaron’s leadership. During the prolonged absence of Moses, people insisted on Aaron saying: “Come, make us gods to walk ahead of us; as for this Moses who brought us out of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him” (Ex 32:1). Their impatience and lack of faith in God and Moses brought them punishment. A comparable situation might have happened here.
Like Aaron and the enormous crowd of Israelites had waited at the base of Mount Sinai, the nine disciples were waiting for Jesus and the three privileged disciples. The crowd that came to see Jesus was also with the nine. The nine might have felt bad because they could not follow Jesus to the mountaintop with the other three. They had a faith crisis that led to their inability to perform the healing in Jesus’ name. They might have tried to heal the sick child, trusting in the power of their own words rather than the power of Jesus. The Scribes might have been questioning their inability to heal the boy and insulting them and Jesus in public.
A man approached Jesus
The demoniac boy’s father was much distressed by the inability of the nine apostles to heal his son. That must be the first failure of the apostles. So, the disappointed father approached Jesus from the crowd. His last hope was in Jesus.
Knelt before him
Kneeling is a posture of reverence and worship. The Hebrews considered the knee as a symbol of strength. So, bending the knee is one’s surrender before the Almighty. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple of Jerusalem, he “knelt in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel and stretched forth his hands toward heaven” (2 Chr 6:13). After return to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile, Ezra’s posture of prayer was similar: “At the time for the evening offering, I rose from my fasting, and with my clothes and mantle torn, I knelt down, spreading out my hands to the LORD, my God” (Ezra 9:5). During the public ministry of Jesus, many people who sought his help knelt before him as a sign of their devotion. Jesus himself prayed on his knees at the Garden of Gethsemane before his passion and crucifixion (Lk 22:41). Saint Stephen (Acts 7:60), Saint Peter (Acts 9:40), Saint Paul (Acts 20:36) and the early Christian Community (Acts 21:5) used to pray on their knees. So, kneeling is a Biblical posture of prayer and surrender before God.
(15) Lord, have pity on my son who is an epileptic and suffers much. He often falls into fire and often into water
The term lunatic derives from the Latin word lunaticus, which means moon. Its equivalent word in English is “moonstruck.” People with mental disorders had aggravated symptoms during the full moon. Society classified them as lunatics. They were distinct from the demon-possessed. Most of them are epileptic. Astrologers had used this term to refer to neurological and psychiatric diseases. They believed that the moon could disturb the brain. In the olden days, people who were sleeping in the open air with no shelter used to keep awake because of the intense light of the full moon. That would affect the health and behaviour of a sick person. Other than this, there is no scientific evidence for the full moon’s influence on human behaviour.
Suffers much. He often falls into fire and often into water
In Matthew’s gospel, the father only summarizes the sickness by stating that his son suffered severely and fell into fire or water. When the epileptic seizure happens, the person is prone to fall down wherever he is, regardless of whether it is at the fireside, or by the water, or in any similar unsafe state. Some interpreters present that the son had a suicidal tendency because of his severe suffering from the sickness. In Mark, the father states, “Whenever the spirit seizes him, it throws him down and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and becomes stiff all over” (Mk 9:17-18). These were the normal symptoms of epilepsy or seizure, though the belief was that it was because of the influence of an evil spirit. In Luke, the father made the request more sensitive by saying that the sick son was his only child. Here also the father believes that a demon had possessed his son and describes the symptoms. “The spirit throws him into a fit and he foams at the mouth; it scarcely ever leaves him and is wearing him out” (Lk 9:39). All these show that the condition of the boy was severe and needed divine intervention for a cure.
(16) I brought him to your disciples but they could not heal him
The argument between the nine apostles and the Scribes was the apostles’ inability to cure the boy in Jesus’ name. The formula the apostles used to cure, as they had done before, did not work. It was a disgrace for them in front of the public, followed by the ridicule of the Scribes on their master’s divine power. Jesus “gave them authority over the unclean spirits to drive them out and to heal every disease and sickness” (Mt 10:1). They could perform these miracles and had reported it to Jesus (Lk 10:17). That experience had prompted the father to present his sick son to the apostles in the lengthy absence of Jesus on the mountain with the other three apostles. But that attempt failed. So, the father’s appeal could mean the inability of the disciples and the severity of the disease that called for a higher intervention from Jesus himself. Unlike many other people who had approached Jesus for healing, this father’s request to Jesus was, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). So, a reason for the failure was also the father’s lack of sufficient faith.
(17) Jesus replied, “You, faithless and evil people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to me”
You, faithless and evil people!
Jesus’ reply was addressed to all who were present, especially the disciples and the father of the boy who all were weak in faith. The Scribes who were arguing had no faith at all in Jesus. Faith is a condition for the miracle to work like the patients who need trust in their physician. The grace of God demands our faith in God. Jesus calls the people perverse or stubborn in their unbelief.
How long must I be with you?
The physical presence of Jesus was only for a limited time. The disciples had to continue Jesus’ mission. For that, they needed to remain in faith. This failure in performing the miracle was a learning experience for them.
How long must I put up with you?
God had been enduring the constant unfaithfulness of Israel throughout their history, despite his covenant with them and protection over them. Jesus addressed this question not just to the disciples, but to the whole of Israel.
Bring him here to me
This request was to the father of the sick child. In Luke’s version, the words of Jesus were, “Bring your son here” (Lk 9:41). Instead of Jesus walking towards the sick, he asked the father to bring the child to him to test his faith in the healing power of Jesus.
(18) And Jesus commanded the evil spirit to leave the boy, and the boy was immediately healed
The Jews believed that demons caused many diseases. Jesus scolded the demon and cast it out from the boy because this was a complicated case with the combination of epilepsy and demonic possession.
Matthew summarizes the cure. However, Mark gives more details of how it happened (Mk 9:20-27). According to him, the father and others brought the boy to Jesus. Then the demon threw the boy into convulsions. The boy fell to the ground, rolled around with foam coming out of his mouth. When Jesus enquired the father the history of the illness, he said that the boy had that sickness from childhood.
The father made a mistake in requesting Jesus: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk 9:22b). The father had almost lost all hopes of getting a cure because of the inability of the disciples to cast out the demon and also because the severe symptoms erupted even in the presence of Jesus. When Jesus questioned the father’s doubt, the father cried out saying: “I do believe, but help the little faith I have” (Mk 9:24). That was the key to get the cure. Jesus accepted even the minuscule faith and gave a complete cure to the boy. However, more actions took place to test the faith of the father. When Jesus commanded the demon to come out of the boy and never enter him again, the boy was thrown into convulsions again even as the demon was exiting. The boy was lying there like a corpse, and many gathered there believed that he was dead. The father did not despair because still, he kept faith in Jesus. He raised the boy by the hand.
Though Luke only summarizes how Jesus healed the boy, the evangelist adds that Jesus returned the boy to his father after the healing. “And all of them were astonished at God’s wonderful work” (Lk 9:43).
(19) The disciples then gathered around Jesus and asked him privately, “Why could we not drive out the spirit?”
The disciples who approached Jesus in private were the nine who failed to perform the miracle in Jesus’ name. They were reluctant to ask Jesus in public. They were sure that they did the way they had been doing before in such cases. Some people humiliated them, and the Scribes questioned them in public. According to Mark’s gospel, the disciples asked Jesus at a house where they were staying (Mk 9:28).
(20) Jesus said to them, “Because you have little faith. I say to you: if only you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell that mountain to move from here to there, and the mountain would obey. Nothing would be impossible to you”
Because you have little faith
Jesus found the deficiency of faith also among the disciples. The nine apostles showed some faith by trying to perform the miracle in Jesus’ name. But they got discouraged because Jesus did not take them along with him when he went up the mountain for prayer with the other three. They were not sure what was happening there with the three favoured disciples. So, their faith in Jesus had wilted somewhat.
If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed
This phrase does not mean that they need only tiny faith like a mustard seed. It shows the contrast of a profound impact they could make, even if they had only a little faith in Jesus. Even a mustard seed that would seem insignificant can grow as a gigantic tree. So also, their faith in Jesus could grow and produce a significant impact in the world. And so it happened in church history.
You could tell that mountain to move from here to there, and the mountain would obey
Jesus just came down from the Mount Tabor (or Mount Hermon as some believe) with Peter, James, and John after the transfiguration. So, Jesus might point to the same mountain when he told this. Moving the mountain is an oratorical magnification to show that what would seem impossible is achievable through faith.
Nothing would be impossible to you
Everything is possible for God. When the church was under severe persecution from the Romans for centuries, the Christian community did not understand how that would end. In faith and prayer, they persisted in the church. God made use of Emperor Constantine to end the Christian persecution and to promote Christianity all over the Roman Empire. So, when the disciples perform anything concurrent with the will of God, they will achieve it if they do it with faith.
(21) (Only prayer and fasting can drive out this kind of spirit)
Demons vary with several types of attacks on persons (Mt 12:45). The demon expulsion Jesus performed was a severe case. Hence, Jesus used “this kind” which needed a strong spiritual power. The disciples can have that by prayer and fasting. Jesus gained strength for his public ministry by prayer and fasting for 40 days and nights (Mt 4:2). Before receiving the tablets of Ten Commandments from God, Moses was with God 40 days and 40 nights (Ex 24:18). He repeated this prayer and fasting for another 40 days and nights before receiving the second set of two tablets on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:28). The disciples had not been fasting during the public ministry of Jesus (Mt 9:14). They did not know how to pray (Lk 11:1). So, Jesus was helping his disciples to understand how they should overcome troublesome tasks in their ministry.
1. Like the father in this gospel passage, parents should intercede for the spiritual wellbeing and safety of their children. Jesus will answer their prayers when done in faith and fasting. Children are prone to all kinds of dangerous situations.
2. The sick child’s father prayed to Jesus on his knees. Kneeling is symbolic of surrendering before the power of God than relying on oneself. It is the best position of prayer, according to the Bible.
3. Faith is a gift of God. Let us be thankful to the Lord for the faith we have received through our parents and our church. Following the example of the apostles, let us also ask Jesus to increase our faith (Lk 17:5).
4. When the nine apostles failed in their ministry and the Scribes humiliated them in public, they did not leave Jesus but tried to learn from him by asking clarification in private. Let us not get disappointed when failures happen in our ministry.
5. Impossible things happened in the church’s history by the humble and persistent Christians like Saint John Maria Vianney, Pope Pius X, Pope John XXII, and many others. When we do the works for God and His people, God will make us instruments of doing the impossible. It would be like moving the mountain from one place to another.