The gospel for today from the seventeenth chapter of St Matthew is rather puzzling. The gospel begins with a father falling on his knees and pleading for his son to be healed from epilepsy by Our Lord Jesus Christ. The father’s plea is quite desperate because the disciples have not been able to heal the boy; and the disciples know they have failed and ask Our Lord why they have failed. Our Lord tells His disciples that they have failed because of “the littleness of their faith” and their lack of prayer and fasting.
This scene takes place immediately after the Transfiguration—the appearance of Moses and Elijah on a mountain top when Our Lord’s face “shone like the sun and His garments became as white as light”. It is this mountain—the mountain of the Kingdom of God—that Our Lord said could be moved “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed”. The image of the mustard seed was powerful, because this was the smallest seed grown by gardeners in first century Palestine; and the mustard seed could grow to ten feet high. So the disciples understood that Our Lord was saying if they increased their prayer and fasting, they too could join Him in the Kingdom of God, they could overcome any difficulty and become one with Him.
The goal was clear to the disciples—to join Our Lord in the Kingdom of God, to become one with Him. But how could they do it? The challenge was a personal one to each disciple. Each person who sought to follow Our Lord needed to increase their faith in Him. That is the same challenge that confronts me today: How can I increase my faith? There is no way I can encourage you to increase your faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ unless I first increase my faith in Him.
In the telling of the same event in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of St Mark, the father of this boy cries out: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” That is the first thing I can do to increase my faith—to face the reality that my faith is not perfect, but I want it to be better. I want to have a stronger faith in the ability of Our Lord Jesus Christ to help me resolve difficult situations that can only be resolved with the grace of God. Unfortunately, increasing my faith requires being confronted with difficult situations and finding out that Our Lord can resolve them.
That is exactly what happened to the disciples. Immediately after urging the disciples to pray and fast with greater commitment, Our Lord informed them that He was about to be killed. Not surprisingly, the disciples “were deeply grieved”, because it appeared that Our Lord was about to leave them on their own. They were very worried. How could they become one with Our Lord if He was about to leave them?
I am worried, too. Unlike the disciples, I understand that after Our Lord dies He is resurrected and He ascends to heaven. He stays with me and helps me, just as the disciples discovered that He would stay with them and help them. However, I still want my faith to be better. I have to recognize that my faith is never going to be perfect, but my faith can be better. I can pray and fast more often.
This awareness of the goal of becoming better has been greatly strengthened for me by the writings of a surgeon, Atul Gawande, and his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. Dr. Gawande comments that: “The … easiest and most sensible rule for a doctor to follow is: Always fight. Always look for what more you could do… [That rule] gives us our best chance of avoiding the worst error of all—giving up on someone we could have helped.”
As an example, Dr Gawande relates how in 1975 a single doctor, Dr. Watson Bowes Jr., and his team at the University of Colorado in the United States decided to tackle a big problem that was disturbing them greatly—it was assumed at that time that babies in the womb that were born two months or more prematurely would die and little effort was made to save their lives. What Dr. Bowes and his team did was to decide that for one year they would “treat those babies as if they would live—no matter how blue, how weak, how small.
The doctors on his team used no new technologies. They simply did everything they would normally do for a full-term baby [who had been in the mother’s womb for nine months]. I will spare you the precise medical details, but what these doctors discovered was that “the vast majority of these premature babies [who had been in the womb for only five, or six or seven months], babies [as small as] two or three pounds in size, could survive to be normal and healthy—just by the doctors fighting for them.”
It is the same for us as Orthodox Christians seeking to increase our faith. We each need to fight for what is important to us and important to Our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to help each other to pray and fast more, to try to be better. We can do it. We can do it with the grace of God. We are unlikely to save millions of lives and change medical practice as Dr. Bowes and his team did. However, we can follow the example of St. Thomas. His reputation is that of the disciple with little faith because he did not see Our Lord alive soon after the crucifixion. Yet earlier it was St Thomas, who in the Gospel of St John, Chapter 11, Verse 16, had the courage to say “to his fellow disciples. Let us also go [to Jerusalem], so that we may die with Him.” And later it was St Thomas who touched the side of Christ and then said, “My Lord and my God.” To conclude, the faith of St Thomas increased because he was determined to seek out Our Lord and become one with Him. It can be the same for each of us.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.