daily biblical sermons

Faith, prayer, and fasting are needed to cast out a virulent evil spirit and to preach the word of God with power
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Saturday, 18th Week of the Year, August 08, 2020
Habakkuk 1:12-2:4, Psalm nine, Matthew 17:14-20

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“When they [Jesus and Peter, James, and John] had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Then Jesus answered and said, ‘O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.’ And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your unbelief; for assuredly I say to you, if you have faith as 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. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting’” (Matthew 17:14-21 NKJV).



Jesus’ apostles, to whom had been given the power to cast out evil spirits and who had successfully exercised this ministry on numerous occasions, this time, when nine of the apostles are all together, none of them is able to cast out an evil spirit that caused epilepsy in a boy. This must have confused them. They wondered why they could not cure this epileptic, when they had cured so many others. Had they lost their power, or was this particular evil spirit that caused epilepsy more virulent and more difficult to cast out and so beyond the power that Jesus had given them?



Jesus himself, with Peter, James, and John, was not present when the father of this epileptic boy came to Jesus’ nine other apostles and besought them to cure his son. But when Jesus finally came down from the mountain, where he was transfigured in front of his three favorite disciples, the father of the epileptic boy came to him and besought him to have mercy on his son, who, he said, “Often falls into the fire and often into the water” (Matthew 17:15 NKJV).



Jesus was not at all pleased with this situation, presumably with his own disciples whom he accused of being of little faith. If they had greater faith they would have been able to cast out this evil spirit that caused these epileptic fits. So Jesus says, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17 NKJV). That this epilepsy was caused by an evil spirit is clear, because as soon as Jesus rebukes the demon and orders him to come out, “the child was cured from that very hour” (Matthew 17:18 NKJV). It was the demon that caused the sickness, so Jesus’ exorcism of this demon cured the sickness, because it cast out its cause.



So when the disciples finally were alone with Jesus, they asked him, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Matthew 17:19 NKJV). So Jesus gives them a good lesson at this point. He basically tells them that they lack faith, prayer, and fasting. He says, “Because of your unbelief (literally, little faith); for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 NKJV).



Then, according to the traditional received Greek text of the New Testament, as witnessed to in the King James Version, Jesus adds, “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21 NKJV). The Nestle-Aland Greek text of the New Testament (26th edition, 1979, 1983) puts this verse in a footnote rather than in the text, as does the Revised Standard Version, but the Revised Standard Version puts this same phrase in the text of St. Mark’s version of this incident, “And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting’” (Mark 9:29 RSV).



So did Jesus say this or not? RT France says, “The words kai n?steia [and fasting] are found in the vast majority of witnesses, both manuscripts and versional,” but he notes that most modern translations put them in a footnote, because two of the most reliable early manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) omit these verses (The Gospel of Mark (The New International Greek Testament Commentary; William B Eerdmans, 2002), page 361). But for the purposes of this sermon I will base myself on the judgment of the Revised Standard Version, which includes this verse in the text of St. Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:29). Since the vast majority of manuscripts contain this verse in the text of St. Mark’s gospel, it does not seem completely unreasonable to accept it as part of St. Mark’s original gospel and therefore to reflect on its spiritual and theological meaning, which I would now like to do.



Jesus says that “this sort [of evil spirit] could not be ejected, but by fasting and prayer: that is, in the exercise of a miraculous faith, expressed in solemn prayer to God, joined with fasting. It seems that Christ not only suggests, that faith was greatly wanting in his disciples; for which reason they could not cast out the devil, and heal the lunatic; but they had been wanting in prayer to God, to assist them in the exercise of their miraculous gifts; and whilst Christ, and the other three disciples were on the mount [of transfiguration], they [the other nine apostles] had been feasting and indulging themselves with the people, and so were in a very undue disposition of mind, for such extraordinary service, for which our Lord tacitly rebukes them” (John Gill, 1697-1771).



“We see in these verses that Satan’s kingdom is not to be pulled down without diligence and pains. This seems to be the lesson of the verse which concludes the passage we are now considering – ‘This kind goes not out but by prayer and fasting.’ A gentle rebuke to the disciples appears to be implied … The warfare against Satan must never be lightly carried on. They are warned that no victories are to be won easily over the prince of this world. Without fervent prayer, and diligent self-mortification, they would often meet with failure and defeat” (JC Ryle, 1856, emphasis in the text).



Jesus is basically saying that his disciples must be wholeheartedly devoted to him in faith, with prayer and fasting. They must not be living a life of self-indulgence, feasting, and banqueting, like the rich man in the parable “who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). God did not create us to live in this way. We remember that this rich man unexpectedly found himself in hell, when he died. He was not living properly, as God intends us to live. We were not created to live a life of feasting and self-indulgence, trying to cram as many worldly pleasures into our bodies and spirits as we possibly can. Such a life is hardly one of single-hearted dedication to the Lord with an undivided heart.



   What Jesus wants of his disciples is total and complete dedication to him in faith that expresses itself in a life of prayer and simple eating and living, not in a life of fine dining. John Gill assumes that these nine disciples, while Jesus was with Peter, James, and John on the top of the mountain being transfigured, were below “feasting and indulging themselves with the people, and so were in a very undue disposition of mind, for such an extraordinary service” of casting out evil spirits (John Gill). Exorcising a virulent spirit like this one was not simply a matter of pointing your finger and saying some words. It required a fully dedicated life of faith in Christ’s power, a life of prayer and mortification, not of self-indulgence.



As Christians we are to have only one master, the Lord, not also worldly pleasures. We are not to be slaves of mammon, which basically means worldliness, devotion to wealth for the sake of the pleasures that it buys us (Matthew 6:24). Rather we are to love God with our whole heart and soul, mind and strength, which Jesus says is the first and most important commandment (Mark 12:30).



If, however, we live like a rich man, stuffing ourselves with delicacies and gastronomic concoctions and feasting sumptuously every day, we will not be able to get into the kingdom of God, for Jesus tells us, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24). If it is hard to get into the kingdom of God while living a life of feasting and self-indulgence, namely the life of a rich man, then it will certainly be hard for such a person to cast out the virulent evil spirit that caused this boy to be an epileptic.



So how should we live? Jesus says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). We are to renounce a life of worldly pleasures and self-indulgence, and rather devote ourselves completely to the Lord. We are to renounce the world and a worldly way of life. We are to die to the world. We are even to be crucified to the world, as St. Paul says, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).



We are to be crucified to the world, to worldly living, to a worldly way of life, and to a worldly lifestyle. Those that do not have such a lifestyle should not expect to have power over virulent evil spirits like the one in today’s gospel.



As Christians we are not to love the world for the sake of gratifying our lusts and filling ourselves with worldly pleasures, as St. John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).



Rather we are to be poor in worldly things and live a simple, humble, healthy God-centered life. That is why Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24).



For Jesus’ disciples in those days to have power over virulent evil spirits and for us in our days to be able to preach the word of God in a powerful, useful, and helpful way we must live no longer for ourselves, but for Christ, as St. Paul says, “He [Christ] died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

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