In reflecting on the nine verses in today’s gospel from the seventeenth chapter of St Matthew, and (in) on the fuller description of the same scene in the fifteen verses from the ninth chapter of St Mark, let us begin by focusing on the father of this young man who has from childhood experienced these terrible convulsions, possibly epilepsy and the father doesn’t know how to help his son. The father pleads with Jesus: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
You can be sure that prayer came from the heart of this father who was “falling on his knees” before Jesus. My wife and I knew well a child who died from an epileptic fit and we mourned with his parents and many others at the funeral. Those parents twenty centuries later were bereft, but they could do nothing, just like this father in the first century. However, this father is still hoping that Jesus has the power to heal his son. Now Jesus himself knows that He has within Himself, as St Tertullian expresses it, “the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.” Yet Jesus has not met this father and Jesus probes to find out how much faith does this father have in the power of Jesus to heal this young man. Jesus says to the father: “All things are possible to him who believes.”
The father replies with incredible honesty in one of the most moving responses to Jesus in the whole of the Gospels: “I do believe; help my unbelief.” St Augustine points out to us in his Sermons on New Testament Lessons 65, that both this father and the apostles who were unable to heal this young man, have what St Augustine calls “an emerging faith, which is not yet full faith… ‘Lord [said the father] I believe, I believe.’”
“Therefore,” says St Augustine, “there was faith; but ‘help me in my unbelief’ [means clearly] therefore, there was not full faith.”
I put it to you today in this parish we are in the same situation as that father. We have an emerging faith, a faith that believes in the power of Jesus to change our lives; and yet . . . and yet… we are fearful that Jesus will not heal the person or the illness that we seek to have healed. The fifth century monk, St John Cassian, gives us a very favourable impression of this father. St John Cassian says of this father, “Seeing that his faith was being driven by the waves of unbelief on the rocks which would cause a fearful shipwreck, [this father] asks of the Lord an aid to his faith, saying, ‘Lord, help me in my unbelief.’” In other words, the father’s confession of unbelief is not a cry of despair, but an affirmation of hope in Jesus, because the father’s faith has already emerged sufficiently that this father believes that the power of Jesus to heal his sick son will be made manifest. Today in this parish we are in the same situation as that father. Our faith in Jesus Christ has emerged sufficiently that we can each trust Jesus to heal whatever needs to be healed in our lives and the lives of those we love.
Now that does not mean that Jesus will do exactly what we would like Him to do. In the The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Eugene Peterson paraphrases the 10th chapter of First Corinthians as: “No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it. So, my very dear friends, when you see people reducing God to something they can use or control, get out of their company as fast as you can.”
Jesus Christ may not heal immediately (or ever) the particular suffering that we or our loved ones are undergoing. We cannot control Jesus, but we can participate in His love. We can recognize with St Augustine that the apostles themselves, at the end of the ministry of Jesus in the fifth verse of the seventeenth chapter of St Luke “said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” Therefore, we are in good company when we pray, “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief… Increase my faith.”
What Jesus did for this young man—we don’t know his age—was to heal him. St Bede calls this healing “the human hand of the divine Lord” because as St Bede points out: “Jesus revealed Himself to [the young man] in the reality of His Godhead by His power to save, [and Jesus] further exhibited to [the young man] the reality of His human nature by taking [the young man] by the hand.” Today in this parish we are in the same situation not only of the pleading father, but also of the healed young man. We have both the reality of the Godhead of Jesus Christ demonstrated by His power to guide our lives, and the humanity of Jesus who remains willing to reach out and take our hands, just as He took the hand of the seriously sick young man “and raised him; and [the young man] got up.” We too can get up from whatever our illnesses of mind or body may be; and we can rejoice in the power of Jesus Christ to increase our faith and to heal 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 the ages of ages, Amen.