1 Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 17:14-23
Many biblical characters are memorable because of the honesty with which they are portrayed. They were people who encountered Christ with all the weaknesses and faults that we still possess today and who serve as models for how to open our lives to His healing mercy with integrity. Unlike people in any time or place who want a religion that goes no deeper than appearances in order to help them serve the false gods of this world, figures such as the father of the epileptic boy in today’s gospel reading show us how to relate to Christ with true humility.
The poor man was brokenhearted over the sufferings of his son, whose seizures put his life at risk by causing him to fall into both fire and water. He had asked the disciples to heal him, but they lacked the strength to do so. The Lord spoke truthfully about the spiritual weakness of those closest to Him: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” Then He healed the young man. The disciples, being unaware of why they were unable to be of help in this situation, asked the Lord about it. His response must have been difficult to hear: “Because you have no faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as 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 to you. This kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.”
Whatever attachment the disciples had to Christ at this point, it did not count as true faith. Since He said that “This kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting,” they must have lacked even the most basic spiritual disciplines. The passage ends with Christ foretelling His Passion: “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and He will rise on the third day.” All the gospels indicate that the disciples did not expect the Messiah to die and rise from the grave. They shared the dominant hope for a military champion to defeat the Roman forces of occupation and set up an earthly kingdom, in which they expected to have places of prominence. Remember that the Lord said, “Get behind me, Satan!” to Peter, the head disciple, when he rejected the prediction of His cross and empty tomb. (Mk. 8:33) The hearts of the disciples would have to be broken through their denial and abandonment of the Savior Who went to the Cross, which displayed their lack of faith so clearly, in order for them to become receptive to a Messiah very different from what they had expected.
People think of religion in many different ways today, but usually not in a way that requires our hearts to be broken. We typically want to avoid anything that keeps us from fulfilling our self-centered desires or even suggests that life is about anything greater than defining and serving ourselves however we please. Distortions of the way of Christ that attempt to make Him the servant of our preferences and agendas make people blind to the stark reality that taking up our crosses will inevitably break our hearts as we learn that the healing of our souls does not come through getting what we want or think we deserve. Those who teach that faithfulness to Christ is a means to wealth, power, glory, personal satisfaction, and the success of whatever partisan factions they happen to like reveal only their lack of faith by doing so. They attempt to use the Lord to serve their distorted desires and earthly agendas every bit as much as the disciples did. Those who do so will become as spiritually weak as the disciples when they were powerless to heal the epileptic boy. Such corruption of the faith is more dangerous than its outright rejection, for it is entirely possible to think that we are serving the Lord when we are actually serving only ourselves.
St. Paul dealt with such distortions of the way of Christ in the church at Corinth where some built themselves up in their own minds in contrast to the humble obedience characteristic of true apostles. In contrast to the pretensions of his opponents, Paul wrote that true apostles are fools for Christ, weak, held in disrepute, hungry, thirsty, homeless, and persecuted. They were obviously not out for praise, glory, or self-satisfaction, but manifested in their sufferings the true way of the Lord as they blessed and forgave their tormentors. That is why Paul could say with integrity, “be imitators of me.” By enduring the pain and struggle of a heart broken for love of God and neighbor, he was healed of his passions and became a living icon of Christ.
The heart of the father in today’s gospel lesson had already been broken by his recognition that he could not heal or protect his son from seizures that could cause his death. Years of caring for the boy had revealed his own weaknesses and limitations. The common hopes of parents to see their family lines flourish in future generations rang hollow for him now. He struggled to think that he could keep his son from dying an untimely death and his hopes were crushed yet again when the disciples could not heal him. In Mark’s account of this encounter, we learn that the “father cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’ in response to the Savior’s words ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’ (Mk. 9:23-24) In the midst of this man’s brokenness and pain, he gained the vision to see that his faith was far from perfect. He had acquired the spiritual clarity to see the weakness of his faith, which was possible only because he really did have a measure of faith. His heart would not be healed by mouthing pious platitudes or pretending he was something he was not. He cried honestly to the Lord from the depths of his soul and the Lord heard his plea.
As King David wrote in Psalm 50, “a contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Our hearts will become contrite and humble when we confront how we have marred the beauty of our souls and refused to fulfill our calling to become like God in holiness. St. Mark the Ascetic wrote that “Remembrance of God is pain of the heart endured in the spirit of devotion.” We will experience pain in our hearts when, instead of shutting our eyes to the truth, we honestly and persistently open even our deepest struggles and the darkest crevices of our souls to the healing of Christ. We will then experience in our own hearts the infinite distance between the brilliant holiness to which we are called and the dark corruption we allow to remain in us. Doing so requires embracing the arduous task of daily dying to self and reorienting the desires of our hearts for fulfillment in God. We must pray, fast, serve our neighbors sacrificially, and do all that we have the strength to do in taking up our crosses and following our Lord.
Even the most meticulous performance of spiritual disciplines does not have the power, in and of itself, to bring healing to us, our loved ones, or our world. Remember that even as the Lord chided the disciples for their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting, He foretold His great Self-offering on the Cross and victory over death through His glorious resurrection on the third day. He alone is the Savior, but we open ourselves to receive His healing by calling to Him from the depths of our broken hearts. They will be broken only when we honestly engage the struggle to turn away from addiction to self-centered desire and to find healing from our passions. It is only then that we will gain the spiritual clarity and honesty to say with the brokenhearted father, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” It is only then that we will grow in true faith in Christ. Otherwise, we will remain spiritual weaklings who would rather try to use God to get whatever we want in this life than to actually share in His life. If our hearts are not broken by the weight of our own sins and our love for the suffering neighbors in whom we encounter Christ, it will simply be impossible for us to gain the spiritual integrity of the father in today’s gospel reading. But, thanks be to God, that is possible for us all, if we will only take up our crosses as best we can and follow our Lord. Doing so will break our hearts in many ways, but that is necessary if—like the disciples—we are to gain the strength to enter into the joy of the Savior’s victory over the corrupting powers of sin and death.