WHAT TO DO WHEN NOTHING HAPPENS
14 When they came to the multitude, a man came to him, kneeling down to him, saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is epileptic, and suffers grievously; for he often falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 So I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.” 17 Jesus answered, “Faithless and perverse generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked him, the demon went out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately, and said, “Why weren’t we able to cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you. 21 But this kind doesn’t go out except by prayer and fasting.”
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- Jesus, Peter, James and John came back from being on the mountain.
- A crowd of people were with the disciples.
- A man from the crowd came to Jesus and knelt in front of him.
- He asked Jesus to have mercy on his son.
- He said that his son was suffering greatly from seizures.
- Because of the seizures, he would often fall into a fire or water.
- The man had brought his son to the disciples asking for them to heal him.
- The disciples had tried to bring healing to the boy but were not able to do so.
- Jesus said their inability to heal the boy was a direct result of having beliefs and values that originated in the unbelieving and perverse generation they belonged to.
- He openly questioned as to how long he might have to stay with them for them to have adequate faith.
- Their unbelief and perversity were hard to put up with.
- He told the man to bring the boy to him.
- When they did so, Jesus rebuked a demon who was within the boy.
- The demon came out, and the boy was healed immediately.
- The disciples waited until they were able to be alone with Jesus.
- They asked why they were not able to drive out the demon.
- Jesus said it was because they had such a small measure of faith.
- If they had faith the size of a mustard seed, it would be sufficient to be able to command a mountain to move and it would.
- That same measure of faith would mean that nothing would be impossible for them.
- Jesus concluded by saying that the strength of this demon would require a measure of faith only possible through prayer and fasting.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
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 the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
While Jesus and three of the disciples were holding their meeting with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, the other disciples had been asked to do some ministry in his absence. A man had come, presumably looking for Jesus. When he discovered that Jesus was not present, he must have asked the disciples to bring healing to his son. We know from previous incidents that the disciples had seen people being healed and demons being cast out. Jesus had sent out the twelve and then seventy-two others to go to all of the towns and villages where he was eventually going to visit in person. Their testimony in both cases confirmed that the authority Jesus had given was being successfully exercised. When they tried to bring the same healing/deliverance to this boy nothing happened. When Jesus arrived, the man turned to him for help. His son was suffering, and he was desperate to find relief. He expressed his disappointment that the disciples had not been successful.
17 Jesus answered, “Faithless and perverse generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you? Bring him here to me.”
We have certainly come to expect surprises in these incidents. This one is no exception but in a different way. On this occasion, it comes in the form of an unexpectedly high level of frustration displayed by Jesus. As far as I can tell, this is possibly the most despairing thing Jesus ever has to say about his disciples. Remember that we are not talking about someone who was subject to emotional mood swings that change like the wind. We are talking about someone who reveals the character and purpose of God all day every day. This is a loving statement, not an uncontrolled outburst. It was also the truth. Love and truth need to be seen as binary in every form of Christian ministry. When they get separated, everyone and everything loses. When they exist together, they provide they advance personal and communal wholeness through the coming of the kingdom of God.
I have come from a Christian culture where truth was regarded as the more important ingredient. This culture produced thousands of books and papers where Christian doctrines were fine-tuned as a means of figuring out who was right and who was wrong. These documents, rather than building up the body of Christ did the exact opposite. It gave one group a tangible way of figuring who was in and who was out. It also gave them weapons to wield in a war of righteousness that justified all kinds of hatred, venom and shameful divisions. It bred pride and arrogance. It drove good people away from God as they were often bruised and beaten by someone who was supposed to be speaking God’s truth.
I live in a time where the pendulum has just about swung to the opposite extreme. I’m not sure whether it is a case of love without truth, but there seems to be a general reluctance to acknowledge sin in any way or to challenge behaviour as being blameworthy. It is often taken as some purely negative force. As a result, in our world there exists a sort of “happiness” cult. Everyone is wonderful, and everything is wonderful. Children are being raised to think they are amazing and free from defect just because they breathe. Acknowledging pain, hardship and struggle as a regular part of life is not tolerated. Acknowledging that normal life will require choices to be made that involved pain and difficulty is also frowned upon. Exposing fault or confronting error can be seen as a form of bullying. In this kind of world, this statement from Jesus will make some people feel uncomfortable for the reasons I have just described. Contemporary attitudes might well define them as politically incorrect. Others might just see them as harsh and hurtful. More would assume that Jesus was frustrated or cranky. Such an explanation would come from our own experience rather than from the record. It is important for us to grapple with the idea that this statement was just as loving as any of those we would more readily associate with Jesus’ as a loving Saviour.
Let’s just allow the facts to reveal the nature of this occasion where truth and love may seem harsh and critical. As I said, some people might think that Jesus was just getting angry and these words were chosen by emotions running out of control. It would be easy to think that if Jesus had just considered the situation he might have found a more politically correct way of approaching the issues of concern. By my reading, there are four facts about the disciples Jesus was bringing out in the open in the hearing of the crowd.
- Culpable Unbelief: The disciples had heard what Jesus had said and watched what he did. They had also carried out this ministry themselves, as authorised by him. On this occasion, they had set aside the trust that flowed naturally from the environment of heaven and had transferred their trust to a different authority other than Jesus.
- Culpable Perversity: The disciples’ inability to heal the boy resulted from perverse attitudes. That means they were twisting and misrepresenting the truth they had seen and heard from Jesus.
- Culpable Collective captivity: Jesus places the two previous problems in a specific context. He accuses them of getting their form of unbelief and perversity from their own cultural attitudes and assumptions. We are not told what these cultural values were, but we get an idea from a general reading of the gospels and Acts. It was a world that had been captured by religious rituals and laws that were substituted for a personal or collective trust in the presence and power of a living, loving God.
- Culpable slowness: Jesus also pointed out that they should have seen enough and known enough to know what to do with this demonised boy. Their lack of progress was neither righteous nor innocent. They should have taken things into their hearts, but they didn’t. They should have been developing their own measure of authority and confidence in God, but they weren’t. This neglect was culpable. It is also true for many of us much of the time. We hear but don’t obey, and when we obey and don’t see a result, we often allow our faith to be compromised, rather than allowing the difficulty and failure to challenge us to seek God.
Jesus knew that if he didn’t make comments like this, the rot would continue to have its way. Besides, they were heading for more troubled water than any of them were aware and it was important for them to hear and receive and allow the words to shape their thinking and their expectation. If they failed these small tests, how might they go when they would later watch Jesus be taken from them and yield to death by crucifixion.
Jesus was the master, and the disciples were his apprentices. He was the coach, and they were members of the team. Go and visit any form of human endeavour where maximising potential is important. There you will find that players need to trust and obey their coaches. They need to heed the advice and trust the skills of the coach even if what he/she is asking seems hard, even impossible. They need to follow the game plan worked out and practised by the coach. They need the coaches rebuke as much as they need warm and cuddly encouragement. We have lost most of this in the west in the way we disciple church members. In the work of becoming a world-class runner, the goal is to reduce the time by a single second or even less. Athletes go to huge lengths and great expense just to gain that small improvement. With followers of Jesus, the issue is exposing the degree of trust. This is not a state of mind. It will only be demonstrated by willing and confident obedience – or to put it another way, exercise faith. In this case, Jesus’ disciples were not turning up to training, and their PB’s were showing up their lack of application to the task. That’s why Jesus spoke to them in this manner. The opportunity to grow and develop this trust was there, but they continued to choose the ever present alternatives. On this occasion, they encountered a situation where they did what they had done before, and when it didn’t work, they had nothing to draw on. Jesus wasn’t frustrated with them because they tried to heal the boy. He wasn’t even frustrated that their initial attempt failed to bring healing. He was disappointed that, when the healing didn’t happen, they chose an option that came directly from the unbelief and perversity of their generation. They should have chosen something that came from their two years or so of being with him. They should have chosen something that originated in heaven, and they instead chose something from the earth.
We ought to see ourselves in this “mirror.” The things that bring us beyond our current level of faith need to be resolved with greater faith, not the range of options that make sense to a mind filled with this world’s wisdom. The sad reality is that every compromise makes the next compromise that much easier to accept. Soon, the compromise has become the spiritual norm.
Jesus rebuked him, the demon went out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour.
This series of studies from Matthew’s Gospel have been part of my own discipleship process. I have wanted to apprentice myself to Jesus by looking and listening slowly to what he said and did. And I have wanted to focus hard on obeying him by implementing what he reveals. I have been doing this one incident at a time. I have deliberately slowed down the “watch and see” process and, at the same time, delayed the temptation to rush to interpret without making sure I have noticed all of the information. Regarding the demonised boy in this story, I would love to know what the disciples actually did as they tried to bring healing and/or deliverance. Since I have found myself in their position many times, I want to analyse and compare the methods. That’s what my culture has predisposed me to do. If I follow that track, I usually end up with more questions than answers. Again, my culture will want me to answer those questions by speculation and then use that speculation to form the basis for my interpretation. This is bad practice in my view.
On this occasion, I don’t think method or practice had anything to do with the outcome. As with all Christian ministry, best practice will not be found in whether you say the right words in the right way. In any case, we are given clear information about the “worst practice” carried out by the disciples as well as the “best practice” modelled by Jesus. Whatever the disciples had said or done, nothing happened to the boy. In other words, the demon who had caused the condition was not threatened. I am assuming that Jesus wasn’t critical of the fact that they had tried to cast the demon out. I think his critique referred to the fact that they didn’t know what to do when nothing happened. That accurately describes what is going on in my experience. I would probably just keep saying and doing the same thing hoping that if I can’t drive our the demon, I might be able to “wear it out.”
Jesus was disappointed with the disciples because they had self-limited. They had deliberately refused the many opportunities to increase their faith. Instead, they had clung to mindsets, attitudes and allegiances that were a perversion of genuine faith in God. All of these were consistent with and derived from the religious culture of the day. The demon, in this case, had found a way to resist the level of authority they had exercised. The experience with the boy had shown up what they hadn’t bothered to learn. Remember that Jesus was lovingly charging them with fault. They were responsible for what didn’t happen.
Jesus approached the problem with a simple, confident exercise of divine authority. Healing happened in three phases:
a rebuke issued by someone who had authority in the realm where the problem had its source;
the expulsion of a demonic presence that had been causing the sickness/condition;
the boy immediately showing the signs of complete freedom from the symptoms caused by a demonic presence.
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately, and said, “Why weren’t we able to cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
When the demon was cast out, and the boy totally healed the disciples would have carefully considered Jesus criticism and their own lack. I have often been in this situation and not only with matters of faith. I happen to work with a colleague who has huge skills with computer software. Unfortunately for him, when I try to solve a problem and keep getting no result, he is my first port of call. As I watch him go through a series of steps to identify and solve the problem I am often amazed at how intuitive it seems to him and how foreign it is to me. When the problem is fixed, I am amazed and realise that what he sees and knows when he looks at a computer screen is a world away from what I know and see. I think the disciples were often made aware of this. I am assuming that they waited for a private moment because they were embarrassed – first by failing to bring healing, then by Jesus words of criticism and finally by the fact that the demon had been evicted and the boy healed. Fortunately, they were not too embarrassed to seek to learn from their failure.
Please, let us hear what Jesus said in reply to their question. The measure of faith in them was not sufficient for the challenge at hand. If ever there was a subject that has suffered from endless confusion and been battered by speculative reason it is that of faith. There are some simple conclusions we need to draw from what we are told here.
Firstly, faith is measurable. You can have no faith, little faith and great faith. If I were talking about water, it would be easy: no water, a little water and a lot of water. The disciples clearly had faith. They followed Jesus from their fishing boats and tax tables all over Galilee and Judea and through Samaria because of it. Others came and went, but the disciples stayed because of their faith. When asked about it, they could clearly testify to the fact that they knew Jesus to be the Messiah and Son of God. When they had been authorised and sent out, they had faith and saw “demons subject” to them. Here was another demon on another day and whatever was needed by way of faith, i.e. authority, they didn’t have enough. From the information above we would need to point out that they should have had enough by this time, according to Jesus, but they had chosen to stay with perverted beliefs and attitudes existing among their peers rather than lock onto what Jesus was revealing. How relevant this is for every generation. We all have peer generations and all of them a full of perversions and unbelief.
Secondly, faith is a certainty about the future that does not depend on what can be observed in the present. It is a small mustard seed capable of becoming a tree. A seed is, in every way, insignificant, small and seemingly powerless. But it is the promise of a tree. Interesting that Jesus used a metaphor that came from one of his kingdom parables. In the case of the disciples, they certainly started in the right direction but when there was no result, what they saw and what they believed because of what they saw became the focus of their trust rather than the promise that God’s authority over demonic influence was assured. This was the difference between their posture and that of Jesus. Jesus was certain about his authority over demons and about God’s intention for the boy to be healed. When he rebuked, he did so with all the assurance of a ruler exercising authority in his domain. This authority came from his relationship with his Father.
Thirdly, there is no limit to the exercise of faith. There is a mystery here that we are going to struggle with. I can imagine myself listening to Jesus as one of the disciples and thinking how absurd it is for anyone to tell a mountain to be cast into the sea. I can remember reading a book by Adrian Plass where his satirical look at Christian faith had his character thinking he might start the journey of faith by trying to move a paper clip so that he could work his way up to a mountain. Before we simply pigeon-hole this as hyperbole, I think it is more important to see faith as something given by God (and therefore we have a choice to embrace or reject what God offers). It is logical for a Christian to believe that God could move a mountain by his authority exercised through a word of command. So if God wanted a believer to carry out such a task the person would have the certainty of God’s will inside of him and would carry out that command as an expression of that authority. It is much the same as Peter looking at the lame man begging at the temple gate and telling him, “…such as I have I give you,” (Acts 3). It was within him and he got it from heaven, and it was available for him to give to the lame man. The issue is not whether it is possible. The issue is whether you and I have something inside of us that God put there regarding his will and promise; whether forgiveness, esteem, healing, deliverance, stilling a storm or moving a mountain. We should not do what the disciples did and limit God to our own level of disobedience.
But this kind doesn’t go out except by prayer and fasting.”
You will probably be familiar with the fact that this verse has been removed from later translations of the Bible. It is based on a scale of reliability of original manuscripts. The reason I include it here is not that I have drawn conclusions based on detailed research, but because most of the information is included in the parallel incident in Mark’s gospel.  The two words not included in Mark’s account are “and fasting.” My reason for including the whole verse here is because it contains nothing that is not spoken about elsewhere in the New Testament, and the whole Bible. Prayer and fasting are core to the whole story told by the Bible. In this instance, it does complete an otherwise incomplete picture.
Just think about it. The disciples have had a go at getting rid of a demon and failed to shift it. Jesus has returned and when he learns what has happened he publicly censures the disciples for their failure and then proceeds to cast out the demon and the boy is well. When the disciples come privately to ask him why they couldn’t do what he did, he tells them that it was because they didn’t have enough faith. He concludes by telling them that the particular demon they were dealing with was powerful enough to resist them and the only way they would gain that faith was through prayer. The logical observation is that Jesus didn’t need to pray (and/fast) to get it to leave. So he is not talking about a method of deliverance ministry, but about the way to increase faith. Prayer and fasting are a way of relating intimately with God and a closer relationship with God is a key to faith. He wasn’t suggesting that they should have told the man and the boy to wait while they rushed off to a quiet spot and engaged in a time of prayer and fasting. He was saying that if it became clear that they lacked the faith to carry out a task that was covered by God’s promise and purpose they should realise that they only way to gain the faith they needed was to spend specific time in prayer and fasting.
The alternatives we seem to live with are more likely to be a bunch of feeble excuses that are not justified by Scripture and are not represented in the ministry of Jesus. I wonder how long it has been since you were willing to accept responsibility for an unsuccessful outcome in some form of kingdom ministry; similarly, when did you or I immediately set aside a time to fast and pray and seek the Lord so that we would not fail the same way next time around. I fear we would find a straightforward response more than a little uncomfortable.
IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
- The first thing I want to learn from Jesus is how to speak the truth, free from ego-based preferences. If I was a leader with a group of people I was helping to become passionate followers of Jesus, and if they were shown to be slack in an area of ministry I don’t think I wouldn’t be likely to censure them so heavily and publicly. I have done that on a few occasions during my time in Christian leadership and have mostly been criticised for doing so. On one occasion the criticism came from a fellow staff member who accused me of “playing the man and not the ball”. The thing I want to learn from Jesus is to make a decision to say and do things with redemptive love and purpose in my heart rather than by second-guessing what others might think or do as a response. There have been far too many times when I have been swayed by my idea of what others might or mightn’t think rather than being focused on the honour of God and steadfastly pursuing his purpose. The response of the disciples was because they were tolerating a toxic level of unbelief based on perverted truth and public opinion. That’s why it was dangerous. I want to sense when such dangers threaten people around me, and I want to be able to say and do things that are motivated by love, not selfishness (i.e. personal frustrations, insecurities or pride).
- I need to take this incident as a lesson in the “what-to-do-when-nothing-happens” department of weekly kingdom ministry. I want to be directed by what God has promised, the total reliability of his character and the veracity of his covenant commitment, not by what I see before my eyes. The word of rebuke that Jesus spoke was, by comparison, a small seed. The evicted demon and the healed boy was a fully grown mustard tree. Jesus was prepared to plant the small seed with full confidence that God would turn it into a large tree. I need to have that sense of authority about what God has said. I think it is different from just knowing the information. I have a lot of Biblical information. It has been accumulated over many years. I don’t have the same measure of authority about what that information reveals about God and his purpose. So I need to be courageous enough to know that God has the power to get rid of a demon. If the demon doesn’t go, I need to take responsibility for what hasn’t happened. With that in mind, I need to seek God through prayer and fasting until I have something inside of me that will be more than enough to drive out the next resistant demon.
HOW THE GOSPEL WAS PROCLAIMED ON THIS OCCASION
The gospel that was proclaimed here was the fact that the God of the universe is at war with demonic activity evidenced by the suffering experienced by this boy and his family. Jesus was clearly incensed by the idea that a demonised boy should be brought and return home as oppressed as he was when he came. The father should be commended for his faith. He knew Jesus was the tangible presence of that good news and when the disciples failed he persisted, and his faith was rewarded.
The gospel was proclaimed to the crowd as they saw the battle ebbing and flowing but finally won. The kingdom of God had come, and the kingdom of darkness had been overruled. They saw the evidence in Jesus rebuke and the boy being set free.
The disciples also heard the gospel as they experienced ministry failure and public censure. They responded by taking responsibility for their lack and were given the opportunity to embrace what Jesus had revealed about the way faith works in the operation of the kingdom of God. The fact that we are privy to experiences like this is of great value because we find ourselves encouraged by the record of bad days as well as good days for people who have committed their lives to following Jesus but are still flawed and frail in the process.
 The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass (aged 37 3/4) by Adrian Plass, Zondervan, first published 1987
 see Mark 9:29
 A football metaphor where a player personally attacks another player rather than trying to regain control of the ball and the possibility of scoring a goal. It assumes personal aggression rather than good sportsmanship.