1 Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 17:14-23
Hypocrites bring judgment upon themselves by saying one thing and doing another. Those who declare themselves holy do themselves and others much more harm than good. It is better to keep our mouths shut than to claim qualities we do not possess.
St. Paul had such concerns in mind when he responded to his opponents in Corinth by contrasting the ministry of true apostles with the ways of those who abuse the faith to exalt themselves over against others out of pride. Because of how faithfully he served and suffered for Christ, St. Paul could say with integrity “be imitators of me.” As one who would die as a martyr and who endured imprisonment, beatings, and many other forms of abuse, he could say with integrity that true apostles are “the last of all, like men sentenced to death.” Unlike those who accommodated the faith to what was popular and easy, the apostle said, “We are fools for Christ’s sake” who are weak and looked down upon, hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, and homeless.
The Savior Himself rejected the temptation to seek earthly power and glory, and accepted a death that made Him look like a fool according to the standards of the world. St. Paul wrote that true apostles are also like Christ in how they respond to abuse: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate…” He made these points to the Corinthians in order to admonish them to abandon their proud ways and follow his example as their spiritual father. “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”
St. Paul could speak to them with such authority only because he had become a living icon of Christ’s salvation. As the apostle wrote of himself elsewhere, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) Had that not been the case, St. Paul’s words would have lacked power, for they would not have been consistent with his character. But because they were, he was able to serve as a powerful instrument of the Lord for the strengthening of the Church as a sign of the salvation of the world.
The same could not be said of our Lord’s disciples when, in today’s gospel reading, they could not heal the young man with epilepsy. He said of them, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In response to the disciples’ question about why they were unable to cast out the demon, Christ told them that it was because they lacked faith. If they had faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed, they could move mountains. They apparently lacked even that in the face of a demon that “never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” We should learn from the weakness of the disciples’ faith that speaking religious words is not enough. Pretending to have spiritual authority without truly uniting ourselves to Christ will simply reveal our weakness and lack of integrity.
The passage ends with the Savior predicting His own death and resurrection. The disciples’ lack of faith became quite apparent when they betrayed, denied, and abandoned Him at His arrest and crucifixion. It was not until after the Risen Lord appeared to His disciples and explained how He had fulfilled the Old Testament scriptures that their spiritual eyes were opened to know Him truly as the Son of God. Saint Paul certainly did not think of himself as a Christian until after the Risen Lord appeared to Him in blinding light on the road to Damascus. He then found spiritual strength through confronting his own weakness as “the chief of sinners” on whom the Lord had outrageous mercy. In the contrast between his own sinfulness and the grace of God, St. Paul gained the eyes to see the Savior’s cross as “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18)
Faith is not simply a matter of affirming beliefs or having feelings. Faith requires offering ourselves to the Lord such that His life becomes ours, such that our character confirms to His. Remember how Saint Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) With such faith, there are no limits to the health of our souls other than those which we impose by our own refusal to share more fully in the life of Christ.
The irony is that, if we want to become people of spiritual strength, we must turn away from conventional ideas of power. We will be powerless before the evil in our own hearts, and unable to help anyone else spiritually, if we seek honor and glory in this life, refuse to bless and forgive those who wrong us, or think ourselves above patiently enduring whatever hardships are necessary for us to serve Christ faithfully. A life of true faith in Christ will make us appear foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, just as He did to the people of the first century. We must confront our own spiritual weakness as we unite ourselves in faith to the Lord Who offered Himself on the cross in order to conquer death and liberate us from slavery to the corrupting power of sin through His glorious resurrection.
As St. Paul knew, the path of faithfulness is never easy. We must pray and fast in order to open our souls ever more fully to the healing presence of the Savior. We must be on guard against unholy thoughts and desires and mindfully refuse to welcome them into our hearts. We must resist the temptation to make power, pleasure, and pride the measures of our life, and especially be on guard against the hypocrisy of trying to use our faith as a way of gaining anything in this world. We must cultivate the spiritual strength of those who “are fools for Christ’s sake” if we are to have faith even the size of a mustard seed that can move mountains such that “nothing will be impossible to you.” Before the unbelievable prospect of moving a mountain, something the size of a tiny seed seems inadequate to the point of being ridiculous. Of course, the same could be said of the cross through which the Savior conquered death. His resurrection reveals the strength of the apparent weakness of the One Who “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:8)
To be in Christ means that His life truly becomes ours in a way that requires an ongoing offering of ourselves that appears foolish in the eyes of the world, but is actually the only way to move the apparently insurmountable obstacles to spiritual growth in our lives. Saint Paul could encourage the Corinthians to imitate him because he had truly united himself to Christ in faith and faithfulness. The disciples were impotent in the face of evil because they had not yet done so. Let us follow Saint Paul’s example of humble obedience to the way of Christ, for it is the only way to live the Christian life with integrity.