The Desert of Unbelief - A Homily for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (2020)
We hear today about the man with the lunatic son. This event is also recounted in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and between all three Evangelists, a complete picture emerges, of both the factual details and the spiritual significance of this episode.
It begins immediately after the Lord’s Transfiguration, as Christ descends the mountain with Peter, James, and John to rejoin the other disciples. We learn from Mark that a dispute was taking place between the scribes and the disciples, because they were unable to cast out a demon that had possessed a certain man’s young son since childhood. Naturally, the unbelieving scribes took the opportunity of this failure to cast a shadow of doubt on the power and authority of the great Galilean Teacher, and his disciples, perplexed and embarrassed at their apparent impotence, resorted to a contest of words in His defense.
When Jesus is told by the possessed boy’s father that the apostles could not expel the demon troubling his son, He lets forth a cry of exasperation: O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? (Mt. 17:17). The reproach is directed to everyone present. The unbelief of the scribes, who ever demanded to see a sign from heaven and who claimed that Christ cast out demons by the power of Satan, is not surprising. But unlike many of those who came to Christ for help and healing, this possessed boy’s father had only very weak faith, which was further shaken to the point of despair by the apostles’ initial failure. He turns to Jesus as though uncertain of his ability to help—if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us and help us (Mk. 9:22). What a far cry this is from the faith of the centurion or the Syro-phoenician woman! Both Jairus and the woman with an issue of blood evinced greater faith in the Lord’s divine power. And as the Lord always sent these faithful ones away with the words, “Thy faith hath made thee whole,” so He directs this man towards the source of his son’s healing: If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth (Mk. 9:23). Mark alone records the man’s memorably desperate response: Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (Mk. 9:24). And so the Lord finally casts the demon out of his son.
Matthew’s account, which we heard today, further tells us that the apostles themselves were guilty of unbelief; for when they questioned him privately about why they were unable to cast out the demon, Jesus tells them plainly, Because of your unbelief (Mt. 17:20). This is certainly strange. How is it that those who had, just days prior, confessed their faith in the divinity of Christ be accused by Him of unbelief?
Not so long before, He had chosen them and sent them out two by two, giving them power over unclean spirits. Freshly imbued with this spiritual authority, they went about Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, casting out devils, and healing the sick. All of a sudden, simple fisherman and former publicans were roving about from town to town, performing astounding miracles the likes of which had never been seen in Israel. These ordinary men, who until recently had been living unremarkable or even sinful lives, were accomplishing feats that the scrupulous Pharisees, or even the great ascetic John the Baptist and his austere followers, were incapable of doing.
Of course, they knew that the devils were subject to them only in Christ’s name. But perhaps they became a bit puffed-up by the wonders being accomplished through them. Perhaps in their hearts, almost imperceptibly to them, some feeling of their own worth crept in. Freely they had received of the Lord… but after all, were they not somehow deserving? Did they not leave everything in order to follow Christ? Perhaps as they followed the Lord in all His travels and watched Him perform His mighty works, they felt some subtle sense of superiority, of smug satisfaction at being the close associates of such a divine and extraordinary man. Just think of James and John, who, in their false expectation of earthly glory for the Messiah, asked for a position of special preeminence in His kingdom. That the disciples would be subject to such petty human foibles is no surprise, for the Holy Spirit had not yet been given to them as It was on Pentecost, when It perfected them spiritually and empowered them for their apostolic ministry to all nations. Without such an in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, it seems clear that the apostles had grown complacent and proved themselves incapable of preserving the grace to cast out demons given them at the time of their election to the apostolate. They had lost that living faith which, according to the Lord’s word, can accomplish all things—for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you (Mt. 17:20).
These and other similar words of Christ—such as, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them (Mt. 11:24), or, Ask and ye shall receive (Mt. 7:7)—are striking and easily misunderstood. Is Christ peddling some kind of prosperity gospel? Is He teaching us the power of positive thinking? Are we supposed to “name it and claim it,” and expect that if we have sufficient faith, we will enjoy unimpeded financial success and unperturbed bodily health? There are plenty of false teachers today who would have us think so, and who spread such misguided interpretations of the Lord’s words. Even among Christians who are not so materialistic, there are other pitfalls of understanding. Amidst the ongoing pandemic, there exists the temptation to think that if we confess and practice the true faith, God will necessarily spare us, or that disease cannot possibly spread within the walls of the church, and so we can brazenly defy any safety measures instituted by church or civil authorities with impunity. But this is the devil’s reasoning. Once he tried to use the same argument to convince Christ to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, trusting in God’s protection. In both cases, the Lord’s response is a sufficient rebuke—thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God (Mt. 4:7).
If it’s not wishful or magical thinking that He speaks of, what, then, is the sort of faith that the Lord requires of us? Faith as a grain of mustard seed. What is the significance of this? In Matthew’s Gospel, it is called the least of all seeds (Mt. 13:32). So then only a little faith is needed to work great miracles. But as with the widow’s two mites, it is not so much quantity as quality that is important. Faith as a grain of mustard seed is pure, simple, sincere, child-like; as the Lords says elsewhere, I thank thee, Father, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes (Lk. 10:21), and, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein (Mk. 10:15). And just like a little child, it exerts itself tirelessly, an endless wellspring of energy oblivious to fatigue, never stopping to think what or how much it has accomplished. We can see this in parable the Lord spoke immediately following the saying about faith as a grain of mustard seed in Luke’s Gospel. But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do (Lk. 17:7-10).
How can we overcome our slothfulness and negligence and allow the mustard seed of genuine faith to take root and flourish? This is indicated by the phrase: This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (Mt. 17:21). These are the means to acquire and increase active, fruitful, and truly God-pleasing faith. At the outset of their ministry, the apostles received abundant gifts of grace, unmerited and unwarranted by their own past life or personal efforts. But gradually, they became complacent, they took God’s grace for granted, they assumed it had become their personal possession. In order to keep them from growing proud, God took away this manifest grace, so that they would realize it was always wholly dependent on Christ. And now He shows them the path to fully assimilate the same grace, but now as a conscious and willing participant, so that their spiritual life might be founded on the solid rock of child-like faith and the doing of Christ’s commandments.
This is the pattern of spiritual life for all of us, both monks and laity. We have all had times, especially at the start of our conversion to Christ, or our journey into Orthodoxy or the monastery, where everything seems full of beauty and wonder, and God’s gracious consolation is palpable. But in God’s good Providence, this stage does not last forever—the Lord delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage with awesome and manifest tokens of his power and favor, but then He made them wander for forty years in the wilderness. Our faith can only reach full maturity in the crucible of the desert, in droughts of consolation, in periods of dryness and doubt. If we fail to engage in the struggle of prayer and fasting as the Lord urges us to do, then we will ultimately succumb to unbelief.
In an interview several years ago, Met. Tikhon Shevkunov, recounts that this—unbelief—was considered by Frs. John Krestiankin and Nicholas Gurianov to be the worst illness affecting modern Church life. When he heard this, he was shocked: “‘How could that be?’ I protested. ‘And what about the priests?’ He again replied, ‘For the priests also—unbelief.’” In the same interview, Met. Tikhon says that according to Archim. Seraphim Rosenberg of Pskov Caves monastery:
the greatest problem of modern monasticism is the lack of resolve… Resolve, courage, and the spiritual nobility connected with these qualities are noticeably lacking... But if people understand throughout their lives the most important thing—to go to God regardless of any obstacles and temptations, to be faithful to Him—they will not waver in their faith to the point of losing it.
If we think this is beyond us, Met. Tikhon mentions that there are even a number of ascetics living in the world who preserve their faith and lead an exalted spiritual life that puts us monks to shame:
These are ordinary people—women, youths, girls, and grown men. Not to mention the grandmothers, who read such prayer rules that when a monk hears about them—I tell you honestly—he feels uncomfortable. Moreover, they have been fulfilling these rules regularly for decades, with the absolute conviction that they are doing nothing special! A babushka reads so many kathismas for her eldest son, so many for the second, and so many for her youngest daughter. Then she says 1,500 Jesus prayers, just to get a feeling, if only a little, of her own sinfulness. Then the particular prayers of her prayer group, and an Akathist—how could she do without an Akathist?! I am telling you about the real prayer rule of a real parishioner. And such ascetics are innumerable! Besides this, they also work, go to the store, wash and iron clothes, and raise their children and grandchildren. But they are not proud or vain, they consider themselves to be nothing, and are ready at any moment to serve their neighbor.
The Dormition Fast is now upon us. Let us strive to make good use of this little Lent, this gift that the Church give us, to deepen our faith. Let us take up the struggle of prayer and fasting and cast out the deeply-rooted passions within us, which have been with us of a child (Mk. 9:21). So may we greet the feast with a renewed sense of child-like wonder and joy; through the prayers of the Most-holy Mother of God. Amen.
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