Last Sunday, I talked about two kinds of faith and used two adjectives to distinguish them, i.e. saving faith and living faith. They were coined to describe what is true in Scripture. The first has to do with justification and is based on the finished work of Christ on the cross. The second has to do with sanctification and is about the on-going work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers so that they may become partakers of divine nature. Context defines its proper meaning. What about the term little faith? How would you understand little faith? I ask this because someone asked what Jesus meant when he told the disciples, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt 17:20) He understood it to mean that the disciples’ faith was small but learned that it refers to the object of their faith. In case you are confused, the first is like saying the worker is not able to lift the cargo because he is not strong enough while the second is saying that he doubts his forklift is able to lift it. So which should it be?
The natural answer would be the second since mustard seed is the smallest seed around, meaning that the disciples could have moved mountain even if their faith was that small but they couldn’t. That was my simple answer to him based on the verse alone but I told him to read this Sunday’s perspective. Why? As I have said earlier, context defines its meaning. The context for the verse is found in the account of Jesus returning from the mountain after his transfiguration and healing a demon-possessed boy which the disciples that he left behind had failed to. So is little faith the simple reason why the disciples could not cast out the demon? The problem is that this account also appears in Mark and Luke and they do not include this saying by Jesus. So there is more to it than just a matter of little faith. Hence I decided to write this perspective so that no one goes away dismissing the disciples for not being able to cast out the demon because they still had little faith after almost three years with Jesus.
Now if you compare the same account given in the three gospels (Matthew 17:1-20; Mark 9:2-29; Luke 9:28-43a), you would realise that Mark, being an earlier gospel, provides more details about the things happening when Jesus and the three disciples came down from the mountain. It is Mark that we need to look at if we want to know what really happened back then and then to Matthew and Luke for their insights. And we are told in Mark that there was a great crowd around the disciples who were left behind and scribes arguing with them. And when they saw Jesus, they were greatly amazed. What were they arguing and why were they so amazed to see Jesus? At the centre of the commotion was the boy possessed by a spirit. Prior to it, the disciples had been sent out in pairs and given the authority over unclean spirits and they went about casting out demons and healing the sick. But now with Jesus and the three quietly gone for reasons they did not know, they struggled. And it didn’t help that the father did not have much belief that his son could be delivered and a crowd was watching and the scribes were waiting for every opportunity to pounce on them. So what did they do?
I believe this is when they began arguing with the scribes when they should be looking to God in prayer in order to help a desperate father and not let the failure hindered them. I suppose much of their argument would centre on Jesus, whether he was really that powerful or had already left for good and I suspect none were actually expecting to see him return. That’s why they were greatly amazed to see him, not because his face was still glowing from the hangover of the transfiguration. Otherwise it would be pointless to tell the three to keep the matter to themselves. Think of Moses coming down from the mountain and only to see the Israelites around a golden calf and a helpless Aaron caught in the thick of it and we should not be surprised that Jesus answered the crowd, “O faithless generation…” He was really referring to them, not the poor disciples who had little faith like Aaron but not faithless like the crowd.
So why did the disciples fail to cast out the demon? It was more than just a matter of little faith. We need to realise that it was the first time that they, like Aaron, were left behind to deal with a crisis situation that was way bigger than they had ever encountered before. Their faith had been overwhelmed. And with Jesus already beginning to tell them how he would go to Jerusalem and die there, it was also a foretaste and preparation for bigger challenges to come for them. So what we can learn collectively from the three gospels so that we may know what to do and not be overwhelmed when we find ourselves caught in similar crisis situation beyond what we have experienced or can imagine? Allow me to end with my thoughts: There is no point arguing with critics because it won’t solve the problem. Continue to seek God instead through prayer and keep faith in the Almighty even if that faith has been cut down into bits and pieces by the crisis. Remember that it is not about how strong we are but how great God is. And when we do so, we may well be astonished by how the majestic God can turn things around!
Rev Ronnie Ang
September 13, 2015