August 12, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: For him, faith is the test

See Matthew 17:14-23, Mark 9:14-32, Luke 9:37-45

Jesus was exasperated. He said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?”

He had come down the mountain with Peter, James and John after his Transfiguration to find turmoil among the rest of the Apostles. A man had brought his son, possessed by a demon, to be cured, but the apostles couldn’t do it. They tried what they had seen Jesus do, but it didn’t work for them. That’s when Jesus made his exasperated remark and then asked them to bring the boy to him.

From the boy’s symptoms (convulsions, foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth), it appears that he had epilepsy, but the Gospels insist that he was a demoniac. His father said that the boy had suffered like that since his childhood and asked if Jesus could do anything.

“If you can!” Jesus replied. He then followed up, “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” In order words, it wasn’t a question of Jesus’ ability to cure but of the father’s faith. For Jesus, faith was the test. When he cured the woman with a longtime hemorrhage he told her that her faith had saved her. He cured the paralytic because he and the men who carried him believed he could. The same was true for other healings.

The father protested, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” That’s all Jesus needed to hear. He commanded the evil spirit to leave the boy. With one final violent act, he came out.

But why couldn’t the Apostles effect the cure? They themselves wondered and asked Jesus about it. It depends on which Gospel you read. Matthew is most severe to the Apostles: “Because of your little faith.” Mark is a bit gentler, with Jesus explaining, “This kind can only come out through prayer.” Luke doesn’t address the question.

This emphasis on belief doesn’t concern the theological virtue of faith, but of trust in Jesus’ power. Presumably, the father believed that Jesus could cure his son but he had doubts about the Apostles.

It was immediately after this incident that Jesus told the apostles, for the second time, that he was going to be handed over (betrayed) to men who would kill him, but that he would rise from the dead. The apostles again didn’t understand and “were afraid to question him.”

Why were they afraid? Perhaps it was that, if the words meant what they seemed to mean, they’d rather not know. They hoped that his words had a less sinister meaning because surely their Messiah was not going to be killed.

As for rising from the dead, how could they grasp that Jesus actually meant that he would come back to life after his death? The Pharisees taught, and surely the apostles believed, that everyone would rise again at the end of time, but after three days?

The Apostles wouldn’t fully grasp all this until the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. †


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