This is the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, and the Gospel reading is from Matthew (17:14-23); the healing of the boy who was possessed by demons. This incident comes after the event of the Transfiguration of the Lord on the mountain in front of Peter, James and John, after which they came down from the mountain to the rest of the disciples and the multitude and then: ‘a man came to him kneeling and said: “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water’.
This father brought his son to Jesus, thinking that his son was suffering from epilepsy due to the impact of the moon! He believed that the seizures, which overtook his son, were associated with the full moon, which from Greek origins means he was “seleniatic” (from selini or moon) and in some English translations: “he is a lunatic” or “moon-mad”.
But in this particular case, it was not the moon that was the cause, but Satan the enemy of man. Satan has deluded people and deceived them into thinking such things as the moon to be the cause of suffering. And as long as people believe that evil comes from the moon – God’s creation – they are blaspheming His creation and the deeds of His hands as evil. This completely contradicts the idea that upon creation, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good,” (Genesis 1:31). God created these planets and stars to show the greatness of the Creator and glorify Him for his deeds: “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork,” (Psalm 19:1). Also, the Psalm says, “He appointed the moon for seasons; The sun knows its going down, O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all,” (Psalm 104).
It appears, from the father’s description, that this devil was torturing his son and throwing him into fire or water to destroy him, similar to what Satan did when he came out of the possessed man in the country of the Gergesians and entered into swine as the Gospel says: “and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the lake and drown,” (Luke 8: 33). So, in the case of this young man, it seems that the cause of his illness is not associated with natural health, but behind his epilepsy lays an evil, satanic power, or according to St. Luke he was possessed by an “unclean spirit” (Luke 9:42). This incident is also mentioned in the Gospels of Mark (9: 17-29) and Luke (9: 37-42), both of which added certain details about this boy’s condition. In Mark, the boy was touched by a “mute spirit” and according to Luke; Jesus rebuked the “unclean spirit” (Luke 9:42). As it appears from this description, the boy was possessed by the devil who was hurting and tormenting him and was intending to kill him too.
It seems clear in this biblical passage that the father was weak in faith, he shifted self-recognition for his own lack of faith to the disciples, claiming that they were too weak to heal his son; “I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not heal him.” In Mark’s narration, the father’s lack of faith also appears from the way he asked the Lord Jesus to heal his son, “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22).
Saint John Chrysostom notes that not all of the disciples had a weakness in the faith, as three of them: Peter, James and John, whom St. Paul calls in Galatians “Pillars of faith,” (Galatians 2: 9) were not present with the multitudes and the rest of the disciples when the father brought his son to the disciples as these three were on the mountain with the Lord Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 1:17).
The Lord Jesus answered this man who tried to blame the disciples and not the weakness of his faith by saying: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This strong and firm statement did not only target the father but rather it is directed to the crowd and the disciples and to every non-believer.
In Mark’s Gospel, there are more details about the dialogue that took place between Jesus and the father of the boy before the boy’s actual healing. After Jesus rebuked the crowd for their lack of faith without insulting anyone by name, he approached the Father personally by saying: “If you are able to believe everything is possible for the believer.” Then the father answered with this phrase, which is suitable for every person to repeat throughout every generation: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). The Lord Jesus did not directly rebuke the father who was in pain, nor did he condemn him for lacking faith, but speaks generally to everyone present by saying: “O faithless and perverse generation.” Christ, as usual, showed great care, meekness and kindness towards this grieving and suffering father.
After Jesus healed the boy and cast the demon out of him, the disciples approached Him privately to inquire: “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus had given His disciples authority over the unclean spirits “to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.” (Matthew 10: 1). A lack of faith, or none, seems to be the reason behind their inability to cast out Satan.
In this Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus introduces the topic of faith and stresses it as a prerequisite for healing. In all miracles, He asks the requester one thing: “Do you believe? Let it be to you according to your faith.” Christ emphasises the necessity of faith that can “move mountains”, in other words, faith even it is as little as a grain of mustard, can do what is impossible with human power. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “As a grain of mustard seed, small in size but powerful in action, when sown in a small plot puts out many shoots and when it has grown, can give a shelter to birds, so also faith in the soul very quickly does the greatest deeds. So have faith in Him, that you may receive from Him a faith that acts beyond human strength.”
The Lord Jesus continues to teach that “this kind”, meaning Satan, “never comes out except by prayer and fasting”. Fasting and prayer are two vital pillars of the spiritual life and a strong foundation of faith. Jesus taught His disciples, and teaches us through their example, the importance of fasting and prayer in His sermon on the Mount (Matthew, Chapter 6).
Saint Maximus the Confessor teaches about two types of passions, carnal passions and soul (Psychic) passions. Fasting is the cure against the passions of the body, and prayer is the cure against passions of soul. The human being as a psycho-somatic unity (soul and body) needs both fasting and prayer are necessary in man’s spiritual struggle against “this kind” and both strengthen the faith.
The Evangelistic passage ends by preceding the Lord and foretelling His disciples that “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”. He began to prepare His disciples for a matter that seemed unexpected to them in order to strengthen their faith and to draw it out so when these things happened, they maintain their faith in Him.
This Gospel’s passage reminds us again and again that Satan attempts to tempt in various ways, and disguises under different types and shapes to deceive us and control our lives. His aim is to torture and destroy us. On the other hand, this passage also shows us the importance of believing in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ who showed His compassion, care and gentleness to His people. Christ confirms His authority as “Victorious” over Satan, and that He is “The One” who will crush his power down upon His death on the Cross and then through His glorious Resurrection.
+ His Eminence, Metropolitan Basilios