14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” 17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Have you heard about the chicken cannon and the airplane window? I first heard this when I was a kid in school. My dad told me about it and we had a good laugh. Here is one rendition of the story:
In an issue of Meat & Poultry magazine, editors quoted from “Feathers,” the publication of the California Poultry Industry Federation, telling the following story:
The US Federal Aviation Administration has a unique device for testing the strength of windshields on airplanes. The device is a gun that launches a dead chicken at a plane’s windshield at approximately the speed the plane flies.
The theory is that if the windshield doesn’t crack from the carcass impact, it’ll survive a real collision with a bird during flight.
It seems the British were very interested in this and wanted to test a windshield on a brand new, speedy locomotive they’re developing.
They borrowed FAA’s chicken launcher, loaded the chicken and fired.
The ballistic chicken shattered the windshield, broke the engineer’s chair and embedded itself in the back wall of the engine’s cab. The British were stunned and asked the FAA to recheck the test to see if everything was done correctly.
The FAA reviewed the test thoroughly and had one recommendation: “Use a thawed chicken.”
To my sadness but not to my surprise, Snopes concludes that this story is not true, though the story did in fact appear in Meat & Poultry magazine!
The humor of the story rests in the shocking ineptitude of those who would fire a frozen chicken out of the cannon! After all, planes do not frequently encounter frozen birds.
Ineptitude can be funny…usually when somebody else is demonstrating it!
It can also be frustrating.
It can also be tragic.
Matthew 17 provides us with an example of ineptitude which was both tragic and frustrating and not funny in the least. We are tempted to judge the disciples who demonstrated this ineptitude…until we realize that we frequently do the same.
The story is about the disciples’ inability to cast out a demon and heal a struggling boy. This episode has much to say to us. It also has much to say about us.
The church can be a mixed bag, with some on the mountaintop of revelation and others in the lowlands of failure.
When I speak of “the church” I am speaking of disciples of Jesus. In other words, there is a lesson here about the reality of the church that we dare not miss. Observe:
14 And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 15 said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”
First, as we will soon see, the cause of these seizures is a demon. As for the seizures themselves, Craig Blomberg observes that the boy’s condition is “uniquely described in Matthew as epilepsy (from Greek selniaz—NIV “has seizures”…).” The point here is not that all seizures are a result of demonic possession. The point is that these were. I also reject the idea that ancient people did not know the difference between physical/mental malady and possession…even as I quickly add that the history of the church undeniably has too many examples of just this tragic kind of confusion.
Regardless, we take note of verse 16: “And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” Immediately we notice the contrast. While Peter, James, and John are having an unbelievable mountaintop experience, the rest of the disciples are fumbling and badly down below. While the inner circle was having an experience that will stay with them forever, the others are dropping the ball in a way that they will desperately hope to forget.
This is as apt a metaphor for the church as one is likely ever to find. All of these are disciples, and yet their experiences vary widely. So, too, the church. In any given congregation, some are growing and some are struggling. Some are hitting homeruns and some are striking out. Some are lifted by a powerful revelation of the glory of Jesus while others are ashamed of their own inabilities.
It is enough for us to acknowledge this reality at this point. And what should we do with it? I believe that Paul shows us the way in 1 Thessalonians 5.
14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
Do not resent those who are struggling at the foot of the mountain.
Do not resent those who appear to be at the top.
Realize that in the Christian life there will be times when we all experience both realities. The Mount of Transfiguration is not an occasion for haughtiness. Failure, as we will see, need not be an occasion for despair. We can grow out of our failures.
Jesus is rightly frustrated when His disciples fail to be what He has equipped them to be.
It is not the case, however, that there is no room for frustration and disappointment in the Christian life. Certainly the Lord Jesus shows both towards his disciples and their inability to cast out the demon and heal the boy. Listen:
17 And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly.
Michael Card refers to Matthew 17:17 as “one of the severest rebukes from Jesus” the disciples ever received. We are tempted at first hearing to wonder if these harsh words were intended rather for the lost world than for Jesus’ own disciples. But the disciples appear to be the focus here. The disciples are rebuked, the demon is cast out by Jesus, the boy is healed, and then we have the following exchange.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20a-b He said to them, “Because of your little faith.”
First, note that the disciples “came to Jesus privately.” There is a note of humor in this. It is as if they realize that what they are about to hear is going to be unpleasant. Much better to receive this in private than in front of a crowd. But it is Jesus’ answer to their question (“Why could we not cast it out?”) that is most fascinating: “Because of your little faith.”
We are tempted to protest, “It is not a small thing to cast out a demon and heal a boy, Jesus. Are you not possibly being too hard on these disciples, even given their failure?” But we must remember something very important: “Jesus had earlier commissioned them and equipped them to both heal and perform exorcisms.” We find this in Matthew 10.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.”
Jesus, then, is not frustrated at their failure to do something beyond them. On the contrary, He is frustrated that they have failed to do something that they have earlier already done! In other words, their failure here represents a regression. They have taken a giant step backward. They have not grown as they should have.
This spiritual regression is powerfully described and condemned by the writer of Hebrews at the end of Hebrews 5.
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Notice that these “dull of hearing” believers need to be taught “again.” They have regressed. Hence the frustration. And we are seeing the same truth articulated in Jesus’ rebuke in our text. Their “little faith” represents a backward step.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “The world is full of half believing unbelievers, and of half unbelieving believers.” That is something to ponder! Here, the disciples are acting like “half unbelieving believers,” and for this reason the boy could not be healed. We must beware becoming “half unbelieving believers”! Our regressing faith can do great damage in the world!
But despondency must not eclipse hope in the hearts of struggling disciples.
And yet, even here, there is hope. Jesus does not follow up His rebuke with an act of eternal condemnation. Instead, He reminds them of what they can be in Him!
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
This picture of moving mountains as a sign of the power of faith was a familiar one. The ESV Study Bible informs us that “[m]oving a mountain was a common metaphor in Jewish literature for doing what was seemingly impossible (cf. Isa. 40:4; 49:11; 54:10; Matt. 21:21–22).” That is so, yes, but this does not minimize the amazing point: a small but pure faith carries with it amazing power?! And yet, this immediately introduces a dilemma, does it not?
Frederick Dale Bruner writes of these verses:
At first glance Jesus’ answer is not helpful. For if our problem is Littlefaith and if the solution to our problem is “faith like a grain of mustard seed”…what is the difference between the problem and the solution? What distinguishes bad Littlefaith from good little faith?
Bruner is right! How can Jesus condemn the disciples for their “little faith” and then immediately call them to “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” which is, by definition little! So Bruner’s question stands: “What distinguishes bad Littlefaith from good little faith?” What indeed? But then Bruner turns to Mark’s account of this episode in Mark 9 and finds there the answer. Watch this:
28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Ah! So the “little faith” that moves mountains is the “little faith” that prays! How is this different than the “little faith” that receives the censure of Jesus? When we take all of the texts we have considered together, the conclusion appears to be this: there is a faith that is small because it has shrunk from lack of attention and practice. We can see this in the apparent regression from Matthew 10 to Matthew 17. This is, we might say, the “little faith” that deserves rebuke.
But there is a “little faith” that is striving to grow, that dares to believe, that is looking to Jesus. There is a “little faith” that prays! To turn to Bruner again, he says that “prayer is simply faith breathing.” I love that, for a breathing thing is a living thing. This is a “little faith” that breathes, that lives, that hopes.
This is a “little faith” through which God heals the sick.
This is a “little faith” that demons flee from.
This is the “little faith” of the Kingdom that grows and opens the door to mighty movements from our Mighty God!
We are none of us what we ought to be. We have all fumbled. We have all failed. We all know what it is to be inept.
But by the mercy of God we can become what He is making us to be.
Oh ye of little faith! Turn to Jesus and let Him make much of you and your life.
Turn to Jesus and watch mountains move.
 Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (p. 266). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Michael Card, Matthew. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.157.
 Quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.2. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.191.
 Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 118576-118578). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, p.191.