The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 17:14-20

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 1, 2015

14 And when he was come to the multitude, there came to him a man falling down on his knees before him saying: ‎
“And when He was come to the multitude,” &c. St. Luke (9:37) says, this happened “the following day when they had come down from the mountain.” On the day after the Transfiguration—our Redeemer having most likely devoted the night to prayer on the mountain—when they came down from the mountain, He saw a great crowd about His disciples, whom He left at the foot of the mountain, among the rest, “the Scribes disputing with them” (Mark 9:13). The subject about which the Scribes, or those learned in the law, were disputing, probably regarded the unsuccessful attempts of the disciples to expel the demon; and, most likely, the Scribes, in the absence of our Divine Redeemer, availed themselves of this circumstance to lessen their credit, as well as that of their Divine Master, with the crowd, and to charge them with acting on former occasions when they expelled demons, not from Divine, but diabolical agency. We are also informed by St. Mark (ibidem), that the people on seeing our Lord, “were astonished and seized with fear.” probably, either because they regarded His timely and unexpected appearance as extraordinary, as if He knew the embarrassment His disciples were in, and came to their rescue; or, because the brightness of majesty might have been still apparent on His countenance after the Transfiguration, as happened Moses after his long converse with God on Mount Sinai (2 Cor. 3:7).

“Running, they saluted Him,” and reverently welcomed Him. We are told by St. Mark, that our Redeemer asked what the subject of their questioning or controversy was. This He knew already, but He proposed the question with a view of, rescuing His disciples from their embarrassment, that thus He might create an occasion for performing the miracle. Neither party reply, the disciples being, probably, confounded at their unsuccessful attempts at expelling the devil; and the Scribes being afraid to expose their malice to the severe reproaches of our Redeemer; and, moreover, the father of the child whose cure was, probably, the subject of dispute, anticipated every reply, by at once rushing forward, and, casting himself on his knees, besought Him to have pity on his son, “his only son” (Luke 9:38), “who was a lunatic, and suffers much.” Mark (9:16), says, “he hath a dumb devil;” and our Redeemer, in casting him out (Mark 9:24), calls him “a deaf and dumb spirit.” St. Matthew calls him “a lunatic.” Very probably, the evil spirit, knowing the times men are afflicted with lunacy, acted on this boy at those times, with a view of inducing the belief, that the moon was the cause of the sorrows and sufferings of the men thus affected, that he might cause them to blaspheme this great luminary, this remarkable creature of God. From the account given of him by St. Mark (9:17), his illness would seem to be like epilepsy, or the falling sickness. These effects were produced by the devil. The effects mentioned by St. Mark, in v. 17, are, for brevity’ sake, expressed by St. Matthew, “and he suffereth much.”

“For, he falleth often into the fire,” &c. These words were, most probably, used by the father of the boy, in reply to our Redeemer’s question, regarding the length of time he had been thus afflicted (Mark 9:20, 21); and then the father says, “the devil oftentimes cast him into the fire and into waters;” but these circumstances are, for brevity’ sake, mentioned here, by anticipation, by St. Matthew.

15 Lord, have pity on my son, for he is a lunatic, and suffereth much: for he falleth often into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. ‎

And I brought him to Thy disciples,” &c. This, probably, suggested the questioning among the Scribes, respecting the nature and origin of the power successfully exercised by the Apostles, on former occasions, in the expulsion of demons.

16 Then Jesus answered and said: O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me. ‎

This has reference to the incredulous Jewish nation, to whose incredulity our Redeemer, in the first instance, and in public, attributes the unsuccessful efforts of His Apostles. Their failure was owing to the incredulity of the Jews, and to their own want of faith, as appears from the following: our Redeemer takes occasion to tax, in the first instance, and in public, the father of the boy, and the Jewish people, in general, with their incredulity. This is prominently referred to here, although, no doubt, the want of faith in the Apostles is also taxed indirectly by Him.

O unbelieving and perverse,” that is, incorrigible, “generation,” people and nation, “how long shall I be with you?” &c. This simply denotes the indignation of our Redeemer at the incredulity of the Jews; and conveys that He is losing His time and labour, in working so many prodigies among them, to confirm His doctrine, and bring them to the faith; just as a physician, who would find, that all his prescriptions were neglected, by a languishing patient, would exclaim: “How long shall I be coming to this house, this sick bed, when all my labour, and pains, and skill, are lost, undervalued, and become useless?” Others say, these words express a desire of dying, of leaving the Jews, and transferring His graces to the Gentiles.

Bring him to Me.” Even in His anger, He remembers mercy; whilst He reproves their infidelity, He pities the poor sufferer.

17 And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour.

St. Mark tells us (9:19), that when brought before our Lord, the spirit troubled him, and rolling on the ground, he foamed; and that our Redeemer questioned the father how long he was thus suffering. The father said that he had been so from his infancy, and that the devil cast him into the fire and water which is expressed by St. Matthew (v. 14), that “he falleth into the fire,” &c. And our Redeemer having called upon the father to believe, thereby insinuating that it was to his want of faith, the unsuccessful efforts of the disciples, of which he complained, were partly attributable, he exclaimed, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief,” i.e., my weak, imperfect faith. Then, our Redeemer threatened the unclean spirit, which is expressed here by St. Matthew, “Jesus rebuked him,” as is more circumstantially expressed by St. Mark, “He threatened the unclean spirit, saying to him: Thou deaf and dumb spirit, I command thee go out of him, and enter no more into him” (Mark 9:24).

And the devil went out of him.” St. Mark (9:25) describes it thus: “And crying out, and greatly tearing him, he went out of him, and he became as one dead,” &c.

And the child was cured from that hour.” From this, it is quite clear that St. Matthew regarded, as the effect of diabolical possession and agency, what the father of the boy calls, “lunacy.” And, indeed, in the account left us by St. Mark (9:17–21), the father himself attributes the convulsive spasms to the evil spirit that possessed him from his infancy.

‎18 Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? ‎

The Apostles, fearing lest they might have incurred the displeasure of their Divine Master, and lest, also, the power of miracles formerly conferred on them might have been withdrawn, in punishment of their sins, “come to Him secretly;” or, as St. Mark more fully expresses it, “when He was come into the house, and ask Him, Why we could not cast him out?” They did not wish to ask in public, lest they should be redargued before the multitude; and, on the other hand, our Blessed Lord did not wish to put to shame in public, those who were destined to be the future teachers of the earth, and the foundations of His Church. He wished to consult for their authority, by not publicly reproaching them before the multitude, who might afterwards undervalue their teaching.

19 Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible to you. ‎

He attributes this failure to two causes—the imbecility of their faith, and want of prayer and fasting. “Because of your unbelief.” Their faith was weaker than it should be, considering the length of time they spent in the school of Christ, and the Apostolic office conferred on them.

As a grain of mustard seed.” This was a proverbial phrase in vogue among the Jews, to designate the smallest quantity; as, on the other hand, the removing of a mountain was an hyperbolical phrase, designating a thing almost impossible of accomplishment. The words may then mean: If the Apostles had possessed the least portion of that active, lively, energetic faith of miracles which they ought to have, and which, although small, relative to them, was in itself very great, they might perform the most arduous and stupendous wonders. The lively, active properties of the faith referred to is clearly expressed by the well-known properties of the mustard seed. This faith of miracles includes theological or Divine faith in the omnipotent power and goodness of God, together with the firmest, unbounded confidence, that He will grant the fruit of our petitions. This faith of miracles could not be regarded, in itself, as very small, since St. Paul calls it, omnem fidem—“all faith” (1 Cor. 13:2); but, whilst very great as regards the rest of the faithful, it might be regarded as very small, comparatively, and in regard to the Apostles. Had they possessed this active, energetic faith of miracles in the smallest degree, relative to them, not only could they have expelled the demon, who resisted them, and whose fierce resistance probably caused them such diffidence; but they would be able to perform the most stupendous wonders. The allusion to the “grain of mustard seed,” regards not alone the smallness of a thing, but also its active, energetic properties. It conveys a reproach to the Apostles for not possessing this faith in the present instance.

You shall say to this mountain.” Mount Thabor, at the foot of which they were staying. St. Jerome takes the word in a mystical sense, to designate the devil, this fallen angel of pride. Elsewhere allusion is made to this faith of miracles (21:21).

Of course it is supposed that the glory of God, and our own or neighbour’s good, require the exercise of this great power, and that its exercise would not proceed from vain curiosity or presumption; because, if so, it would not proceed from “faith.” We have not read of the Apostles having transferred mountains. Most likely, no occasion or necessity occurred for their doing so. But, we read of them performing more wonderful and arduous things, such as the raising of the dead to life; and in latter times, we read of this miracle having been performed by St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (Eusebius, Histor. Lib. vii. c. 25). No doubt, the Apostles would have removed mountains if the necessity or some justifying cause for their doing so had arisen; moreover, they may have done so, as all the miracles of the saints are not recorded.

And nothing shall be impossible to you,” acting under the influence of this faith, whenever the glory of God and the salvation of men shall demand it; but not when it is sought to gratify curiosity, or please men. Hence, our Redeemer refused to work miracles in the presence of Herod, demanding him to do so, from motives of curiosity and vain glory.

20 But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.

Besides the want of faith—and faith is a general condition required for working all miracles—a second cause of their failure is here assigned, peculiar to this and like cases. “This kind,” is understood by St. Chrysostom to refer to devils in general, to the whole genus of demons. This, however, is improbable, as we find that the Apostles expelled some evil spirits by the simple invocation of the name of Christ (Luke 10:17), without having recourse to prayer and fasting. Hence, the words refer to a certain description of obstinate and ferocious, powerful devils, whose expulsion requires, not only that the person who undertakes it be gifted with the ordinary faith of miracles, sufficient for the expulsion of ordinary demons; but also that this faith be increased and intensified by fervent “prayer,” extraordinary confidence in God, “and fasting,” which, by subjecting the flesh to the Spirit, by elevating and uniting the soul to God, better fits him for wrestling with the demons, who dread a man of “faith,” of prayer and fasting, as they do the good angels of God. This description of ferocious demons, sometimes for a long time, possess men, so that their possession becomes a kind of second nature for the unfortunate man possessed. Hence, our Redeemer asked (Mark 9:20), “How long is it that this happened to him?

Fasting wonderfully assists us in rendering our prayers more fervent; in causing our minds to be disengaged from earthly desires, and raising up our thoughts to Heaven. “Qui corporali jejunio, vitia comprimis, mentem elevas, virtutem largiris et præmia” (Preface of the Mass for Lent). Faith expels the demon by believing; prayer, by petitioning; fasting, by tormenting and starving him; as an enemy is driven out of a fortress, not only by force, but by starving him out (Maldonatus). Hence, the merit of fasting, so much decried by the enemies of religion and God’s Church. Can that be true religion that affects to undervalue, and scorns what our Blessed Redeemer recommends? It is on account of the words of our Blessed Lord here, the Church, in her exorcisms, employs, besides the invocation of the name of Christ, much prayer and fasting. As there are certain orders of angels naturally more powerful than others; and, as the demons fell from the several orders of angelic spirits, and, as is commonly believed, are not shorn by their fall, of their natural strength; hence, there are certain demons more powerful than others, in wrestling with whom greater strength and power are required, as in the present instance. The fasting here recommended is, by no means, opposed to what our Redeemer says of not fasting while the Bridegroom was on earth amongst His disciples, as this latter refers to immoderate fasting, such as the disciples of John were practising, and such as they charged the disciples of our Lord, at the instigation of the Pharisees, with not practising. Our Redeemer Himself assigns other reasons (9:14–17). He fasted forty days and forty nights, and it was in imitation of His forty days fast, which had been long before prefigured in the Law and in the Prophets by the forty days’ fast of Moses (Exod. 34:28) and Elias (3 Kings 19:8), these glorious witnesses of His manifestation in Thabor, that the Church instituted and continued from the earliest Apostolic age, the forty days’ fast of Lent, “which has been regarded by the entire Church throughout the globe, among the chief points of Ecclesiastical discipline, consecrated in some measure by Jesus Christ Himself, handed down by the Apostles, prescribed by the sacred canons, retained and observed by the Church from the very beginning. It is the watchword of our warfare, whereby we are distinguished from the enemies of the Cross of Christ, and avert the scourges of Divine vengeance,” &c. (Benedict XIV. Brief, non ambigimus.)


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