Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Healing of a Boy with a Demon
14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
17 “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
This story has some pretty important lessons for us to carry away, but those lessons aren’t immediately obvious at first glance. It takes the help of the scholars to dig them out. But let’s see what we have here.
The story is entitled “The Healing of a Boy with a Demon,” and that’s probably because in verse 18, Matthew says Jesus “rebuked the demon and it came out of the boy.” But it seems worth noting that when the boy’s father asks Jesus to heal the boy, he doesn’t say anything about a demon. All the father says is that the boy has seizures that cause him to fall into fire and water and make him ‘suffer greatly.’ Some New Testament scholars have speculated that the boy was actually suffering from epilepsy or some other neurological condition. And that seems reasonable given the boy’s symptoms.
As you might remember us mentioning in past Reflections, the New Testament seems to have two different types of stories that are described as involving possession by demons or evil spirits. In some cases, the demons actually speak to Jesus. Some even know he’s the Messiah before his disciples realize it. So in those cases, it seems that Jesus really is dealing with evil spirits or demons.
But in other New Testament stories where people are said to be possessed by demons, it seems that they might actually be suffering from mental or neurological illness. In the ancient world, people didn’t have any concept of mental illness as we understand it today. Anyone with symptoms of mental illness was regarded as possessed by a demon.
In this story, there’s no conversation between Jesus and a demon with supernatural knowledge, as there is in some other stories where demons are cast out. The boy just has symptoms, and Jesus cures them.
Now, as I’ve said before, I don’t want to dismiss the idea that demonic possession is real. Some of what is labelled demonic influence is just people behaving badly. But M. Scott Peck, who was an Ivy League-educated psychiatrist and a committed Christian, wrote that he had personally witnessed what he believed to be genuine exorcisms of evil spirits. Peck wrote about some of those exorcisms in his powerful and disturbing book about evil, one entitled People of the Lie.
The other thing about this reading that makes some people uncomfortable is the part in verse 20 where Jesus tells the disciples that they could not heal the boy because they have so little faith. Jesus tells them that if they have faith as small as a mustard seed, they would be able to move mountains. Nothing, he tells them, will be impossible.
This sometimes causes people of faith to believe that if their prayers haven’t been granted, then it’s because their faith is too weak. Some Christians even say that to bereaved people. But that adds guilt on top of the grief a person is experiencing – if a loved one passes away, for instance, a person might blame himself or herself.
And that’s a mistake, it seems to me. Both Jesus and Paul prayed for things that were not granted, and I don’t think you could claim with a straight face that their faith was too weak. It seems to me that in today’s passage, the point Jesus was making is that his followers could have faith that God would do things that seemed impossible if they conducted their ministry prayerfully and with faith in God’s power. Just look what God has accomplished starting with a rag-tag group of eleven peasants and one converted Pharisee.
I seriously doubt that Jesus meant for us to believe that if our faith is right, we will always get everything we pray for. When you get right down to it, we’re supposed to have faith in God, not in our own power as ‘prayer warriors.’ We can have faith that the God we serve is at work bringing his kingdom to fulfillment, even in the midst of the trouble we encounter in this world.
The real point of prayer, as it’s described in the New Testament, is to align our wills with God’s will – for our minds to be changed, not to change God’s mind. Our prayers are opportunities for God to direct and empower us to help him bring his kingdom to fulfillment, and to be agents of his healing in the lives of people who are suffering and in need. I’m pretty confident that God can use people like us – people whose faith might seem as small as a mustard seed – to move mountains in his service.
Let’s pray. Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, move our hearts so that we hunger to play a part in your work in this world, and strengthen us to do what seems to be impossible when we work for your glory and the blessing of those who are in need. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 54 and 146; Ezra 9:1-15 and Revelation 21:1-8.)