I have read Matthew 17:14-20, the story of Christ’s healing of a demon-possessed boy, many times. I have always drawn the same understanding from it. And yet, when I read it this morning, I focused on a seemingly minor player in the entire affair: the father.
The demon-possessed boy has seizures and falls into fire and water. Because he is suffering greatly, his proactive father decides to bring him to the disciples. The disciples try to heal the boy, and fail.
Whenever I read this story, I tend to focus on the disciples’ failure. But focusing on the father makes it all the more poignant. He’s clearly desperate, and nothing else has worked to heal his son. By this point, Jesus was well-known by many who proclaimed him to be the Messiah and as a performer of miracles, and the disciples were well-known by proxy. I imagine that the man took his son to the disciples with great expectations, having heard those stories. He acted in faith and belief. He presented a child with no other hope, and he asked for their help.
And they failed! What was that like? Did they try to mimic what they saw Jesus do by verbally casting it out, only to pause awkwardly when they realized it didn’t work? Did they pray for a long time hoping something good might happen? Did they blame each other? Themselves? Or did they blame the boy and his father for what they couldn’t accomplish?
More than anything, though, I imagine a father standing there in absolute disappointment before a group of disciples rumored to be the closest friends and companions of the Messiah. They can’t help. His son is still suffering. And at some point, in some way, that man had to depart from the disciples with the burden of that knowledge: I took my son to the followers of Christ for healing, and they failed.
Sure, the disciples had to live with the knowledge of their failure. But so did a desperate father with a son made no better by their intervention.
Which makes it all the more amazing that the father pops up again. As Jesus and the disciples approach a crowd, he is waiting in the group. He hasn’t given up. Kneeling before Jesus, he explains the situation, and adds, “I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
Jesus is clearly disturbed. “Oh unbelieving and perverse generation,” he replies, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” He heals the boy immediately and later – when the disciples ask about why they failed – He tells them that their fault is “little faith.”
I am impressed by this father. He encountered followers of Christ, committed believers in Christ, and was let down by them. He received nothing that he came for. But he didn’t turn away. He didn’t throw up his hands, declare the whole Messiah thing to be a sham, and return to caring for his ailing son. Rather, he remained in the crowd waiting for Christ – and he asked again.
I wonder why. Was he simply that desperate? Did he have a hunch that the master could manage what his followers could not? Whatever the reason, I find that this father demonstrates a tenacity in his desire to reach Jesus that few people possess, especially when Jesus’ followers get in the way.
Because Jesus’ followers do get in the way.
We fail. We have too little faith. We proclaim great things but often don’t live them. We behave in ways that mortify God. We’re hypocrites. We sometimes give the wrong answers and say horrible things. We argue and cause conflict. We misrepresent Jesus with a lot of what we do and most of what we don’t do.
In many cases, this is enough to drive not only non-believers, but also committed believers away. I can’t count the amount of writings and confessionals I’ve read that said something like: “Well, I believe in Jesus, and I love Jesus and I love God, but it’s Christians, man. Christians have ruined it for me.” I know committed believers who, even if they have not left the faith entirely, have stopped engaging with the body or growing a meaningful relationship with Christ on account of how some of its members have acted. Unlike the father in this story, they weren’t willing to overlook the failure of the disciples to wait for the master’s touch.
And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand it. I do. While I’ve never felt the desire to part ways with the church or my faith over something its members have said or done, I sometimes cringe when a current news report says “Prominent evangelical claims that…” or “Prominent Christian remarks that…” because I fear what might be coming. I have stood in front of the TV saying “no no no no no” when self-proclaimed believers have said or done things absolutely antithetical to the word of God. I have been hurt by believers in churches I have attended in the past. I refuse to use Facebook at least in part because I know I’d have to block half of God’s children so I didn’t stumble in trying to love them.
But I don’t want to let go. Because I know that I have been that failing disciple, in some way, to other believers: the one who falters and falls and embarrasses the faith I carry and the God whose name I bear. And also because I recognize the truth of Christianity: that it is not about perfection but redemption, and that such redemption depends not on the servants but on the flawless Master.
So, yes, God’s children are going to fail. They are going to fail me. They are going to fall short in critical moments. I am going to be disappointed. In the moment that I look for hope and help, I shouldn’t be surprised if the church doesn’t always follow through. But I hope that when those times come I can follow the example of this remarkably stubborn father who stepped up not once, but twice; who did not let others’ failure deter him from approaching Christ; and who figured out that it is wisest to place hope not in the followers of Jesus, but in Jesus Himself.