Our text: Matthew 17: 14-21
Two weeks ago, we listened to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain. There’s a deep spiritual clarity to this moment; it’s like an open door into the invisible. But this vision does not long persist. The cloud of glory recedes from view; the voice of the Father is no longer heard; Moses and Elijah are no longer seen.
The disciples descend to the base of the mountain, with Jesus. They come upon a crowd. A man approaches Jesus, kneels down, and begs Jesus to help his son who is deeply ill. He appears to suffer from epileptic seizures. The father had asked the disciples to help him but they couldn’t.
Jesus expresses dismay at his disciples. He had given them authority to heal and cast out spirits (see Mt. 10:1). They should have been able to heal this child.
Jesus asks the father to bring him the child. Immediately, Jesus rebukes the evil spirit in the child, the demon leaves him “and from that hour the boy was cured” (Mt. 17:18) – making it clear that this boy’s physical symptoms were the expression of something spiritual.
The disciples are puzzled. They ask Jesus, privately, what happened? Why could they not drive out this demon?
Because of your ολιγοπιστια, Jesus says. Oligopistia – it’s an evocative word; worthy of a literal translation. Oligo means mini, small, little; pistia means faith. Because of your mini-faith you could not heal this child. Faith is thus the source of the apostolic power to heal.
He continues: “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” In other words, if you have genuine faith in your hearts, you can cause to move that which appears to be immovable.
And that concludes this brief story. But we might ask: what is genuine faith? What is faith like a mustard seed?
What is the heart of this passage?
I am struck by this phrase. “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt. 17:20)
What does Jesus mean here? What kind of faith is like a mustard seed? Is this an easy kind of faith to have? We might think so; after all, a mustard seed is a small thing; only about 1 to 2 millimeters in diameter. Moreover, some translations of this passage say: if you have faith the size of a mustard seed. . .
But Jesus says nothing about size. In fact, he contrasts a mustard seed with oligopistia, with smallness of faith. So it’s not likely that he is emphasizing the small size of a mustard seed. Small to small – there would be no contrast.
What He says is: Amen I tell you, if you have faith like a mustard seed . . .Well, what is a mustard seed like? What are its nature and properties?
A mustard seed is modest in appearance – you can easily overlook it – but it is mighty in potential. Inside, it contains a complex architecture, a spring-like potency; a power hidden, but certain. Within it lie the elements, in miniature, of a complex being: the elements of a tall, stocky, bushy tree in concentrated form. A robust life will one day flower from a mustard seed; a life that can scarcely be imagined from its starting point. The seed need only be planted in suitable soil; needing only the addition of water, sun, time. Perhaps a little tending. It if receives these things, gradually and certainly, that seed will grow to become a source of life and shade for the birds of the air. All from a simple seed.
So Jesus is saying, let your faith be like this seed: modest, with tremendous inner capacity; locked, as though by interior gears, into the motive power of the supernatural, just as a mustard seed is locked into the dynamism of the natural order. But whereas a seed doesn’t need to think about this inner gearing, being geared by nature into the order of things, a person has the power to align – or not to align – one’s will, heart, intelligence into the dynamism of the spiritual order. We can click our cycling shoes into the pedals, so to speak; or we can click them out. Jesus is saying: click in and pedal; and you will see the workings of the Kingdom unfold and flower.
In short: one whose heart, mind and will are geared into the gearings of the Kingdom; one who is rooted in the nature and power of the Kingdom; such a one has faith; to such a one nothing is impossible.
Is there any other Word that illuminates this passage?
Turn to Mk. 9:14-29. Mark is telling the same story but he offers another angle of how Jesus seeks to develop faith in his disciples. Mark catches the dialogue that transpired between Jesus and the father of the epileptic child. Jesus calls this father to faith also, not just his disciples. When the father asks Jesus to help his child, if he can, Jesus says “All things are possible to the one who believes.” To which the man cries out, in a prayer we might all make our own:
“I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mk. 9:24)
It is the perfect prayer, the perfect way of responding to this revelation that a prayer of deep faith can move that which seems immoveable. Do you not feel deep faith within your soul? With this prayer, we can acknowledge that we may not have faith like a mustard seed; but we can still raise our prayer, still can reach out to Jesus with the faith we have and ask that our faith might grow.
How Can I Take this to Prayer?
“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain: move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing will be impossible for you.” Mt. 17. Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, faith in you is a window through which your light enters the soul. Faith locks the gears of the heart into the gears and will of your own heart. It enables your power to flow through me. Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief. Have mercy on me.