Desperation to deliverance- Saturday, 18th week in ordinary time- Matthew 17: 14 – 20
The Italian High Renaissance master, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, in his last earthly masterpiece, captured this narrative in the lower register of the great painting of the Transfiguration. In the upper register of the painting and dominating it, is the narrative of the Transfiguration; and then there is this story, in the bottom register. While the painter may have subordinated this narrative to the great narrative of the Transfiguration, he certainly understood the importance of the issue at stake. Faith after all, is no trivial matter.
Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up the mountain. It is here that they experience the Transfiguration. Already we get a sense of a personal transformation, as a result of the Transfiguration experience. Petulant Peter, who had been chastised in Caesarea Philippi for harbouring his own ambitions, is now a humbled man. He address Jesus as “Lord” not teacher and is now submissive and suggestive; “If you wish, I will make three dwellings.”
The nine other apostles were still at the foot of the mount. They had no idea what had just taken place and are blissfully unaware of the deep personal experience of the three apostles. While this great mystical experience was taking place on the mount, they were struggling to heal an epileptic on the plains. It’s ironic that they could not heal the boy, for they had already received in chapter ten, the power to cast out demons. What then seemed to be the problem?
Interestingly, what the disciples failed to recognize, the father of the boy with epilepsy did. He does not greet Jesus with the customary “rabbi” but calls Jesus “Lord”. This is the same title that Peter greeted the transfigured Lord. This simple man of faith had not trudged with Jesus over the Galilean countryside as He preached and healed; he must have simply heard of Jesus, had faith and believed.
This is the point the Gospel of today wants to make. Faith is not the prerogative of theologians and religious; in fact, it may just about elude them completely. The disciples had been with the Lord long enough, they had their mandate from Him and were schooled by Him; yet they fail to deliver. Their “little faith” is contrasted with the faith of the father of the sick boy. His faith moved him to move the mountain and his son was healed.
It is not the first time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus chastises the disciples for their little faith. He has repeated the exact words numerously. So why then is Matthew raising this issue again and again; surely this puts the disciples’ faith in poor light. Matthew had the bigger picture in mind. His persecuted community had been repeatedly battered by challenges. Faith was hard to hold on to in the face of perpetual danger, but then again faith is precisely what they needed.
In repeating the struggles of the apostles throughout the Gospel, Matthew gives his community the encouragement they seek. In portraying the fledging faith of the apostles themselves, hope for their own faith struggles is provided. Desperation is translated to Deliverance.
Fr Warner D’Souza