When they came to the crowd a man approached, knelt down before him, and said, “Lord, have pity on my son, for he is a lunatic and suffers severely; often he falls into fire, and often into water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.”
Jesus said in reply, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you? Bring him here to me.”Jesus rebuked him and the demon came out of him, and from that hour the boy was cured. Then the disciples approached Jesus in private and said, “Why could we not drive it out?”
He said to them, “Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to 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. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
This passage from Matthew presents a familiar, organic metaphor: Our faith in comparison with a mustard seed. Before we come to this image, however, we encounter a delicate passage about a young boy who is suffering. The demon this child endures is said to throw him into fire and water. In the notes on Matthew 17:15 from the New American Bible (USCCB), it is thought that what the boy is struggling with is epilepsy, a condition the ancients thought was caused by the phases of the moon. Though our modern understanding of epilepsy does not associate seizers with the gravitational pull of the moon (I was surprised to find a lot of scientific research into this question – check out “Full Moon Rising: An Investigation of a Myth” from the University of Virginia Health System), the connection with the moon, water, and fire made we wonder if part of the author’s intent is to show how the “demon” this boy wrestles with not only does harm to him, but in a real way puts him at odds with creation itself? Let us explore what I mean.
In Genesis 1:31, after everything had been created, God looked at the whole of creation and saw that it was very good! This affirmation reminds us that the fundamental goodness of all of creation is at the heart of the first creation story of Genesis. After the second creation story of Genesis (Genesis 2:4-25), we encounter the event that brought “dis-order” into creation: The Fall. The fall of our first parents introduces Original Sin. This condition not only corrupted human nature, but also brought about disorder to all of creation (see CCC 400). Therefore, we live in a fundamentally good creation that is severely damaged by the impact of sin. We can see this dynamic expressed in other parts of Scripture. For example, let us look at the apocalyptic imagery from the 6th Chapter of Revelation.
Then I watched while he broke open the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; the sun turned as black as dark sackcloth and the whole moon became like blood. The stars in the sky fell to the earth like unripe figs shaken loose from the tree in a strong wind. Then the sky was divided like a torn scroll curling up, and every mountain and island was moved from its place.
The kings of the earth, the nobles, the military officers, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid themselves in caves and among mountain crags. They cried out to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, because the great day of their wrath has come and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:12-17)
When reflecting upon this imagery, we can see a stunning depiction of how sin has brought profound “dis-order” to creation. When we contrast a world falling apart with the “very good” creation affirmed in Genesis, we can see how disruptive sin can become in the world. In Revelation, creation is literally “out of order” with stars falling, a darkened sun, and mountains moved out of place. In short, the world’s a mess!
So how does this apply the healing of the young boy who possibly has epilepsy? The point I am trying to make is that biblical narratives of healing are always wrapped up in presumptions that go beyond a physical ailment. In addition to healing at the physical level, the spiritual healing from sin often goes hand and hand in these narratives. In light of this twofold move of healing, physical and spiritual, we find that every healing, in some way, reveals a bit of the Kingdom of God (CCC 1505) as Jesus “re-orders” a “dis-ordered” creation. Therefore, it makes sense that the author of Matthew has shown this boy struggling in a way that puts him at odds with the created world. The boy, himself, becomes a living metaphor of how Jesus has come to re-order the world that sin has “dis-ordered.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a Church Father from the second century, names this process “recapitulation” in which Jesus Christ came to recapitulate all things in himself, bringing about a new creation. (For more on St. Irenaeus and recapitulation, check out this short collection of Reflections by St. John Paul II on St. Irenaeus of Lyons). Applying this to our young boy, we can see that there is not only healing in that the father wants his son’s seizers to stop, but we can see a broader context in which the healing is to put the boy back in right relationship with God and the world.
Now, this is all well and good, but we still have a rather significant problem facing us with this text from Matthew: The crisis brought to Jesus is not just a father seeking to have a demon removed from his son, but rather the request is made after the disciples failed to address the problem. Our intuition would have us say, “Of course, it isn’t the disciples who are to heal the boy, that’s Jesus job!” However, Jesus chastises the disciples in their failure. In a real way, Jesus is making a clear statement to his disciples, “Through me, you should have been able to address this issue!”
Now, at this point, it is very important to clarify what Jesus is chastising and what he is not chastising. Is Jesus chastising the faith of the father who is presenting his son for healing? Absolutely not; if anything, we can celebrate the faith of the father for trusting that Jesus could heal his son after the disciples had failed. How easy it would have been for the father to not seek out Jesus, presuming that there was no hope for his son. Second, Jesus is not ridiculing the faith of the son; he is clearly the innocent victim in this scenario. This leaves us with those who Jesus commissioned and empowered to minister to the people, but fell short of their calling. Jesus response to them, a profound lesson through a mustard seed.
In Jesus’ words to his disciples, you can almost see the veins popping on his forehead. Jesus’ statement about the mustard seed almost comes across as, “If you could give me anything, no matter how small it is, I can expand something great in you to bring faith to this world!” When I think of this in our modern context, I imagine Jesus saying, “If you give me something as small as a singularity, I can expand an entire universe of love, grace, and peace in you that can transform both you and the world!” Therefore, from the standpoint of this recreation narrative we are exploring, we can see that Jesus is not just handing out a magic wand to make people feel better, but Jesus is inviting his followers to enter into a life altering experience of having their entire being re-created in God’s love and, in turn, being ambassadors of God’s grace to a world that is falling apart. Put simply in the lexicon of the college students I minister to at UW-La Crosse and WTC: If you give Jesus a little, BOOM goes the mustard seed (or the singularly)!
This narrative of creation, fall, and recreation is the ongoing narrative of Salvation History. In this narrative is nestled a significant, but seldom discussed reality that part of God’s recreative act involves our stewardship of creation. Though we rightly distance ourselves from certain false presumptions of the natural world held by our ancient brothers and sisters, the core narrative of an intimate connection with our faith and creation is still true.
Discussion: What is the “mustard seed” of your life? How has Christ empowered you to help re-order a dis-ordered world? I’d love to hear from you!