Faith? Oh, you of little faith. Why didn’t our prayers work? This kind needs prayer. Oh, yes, and fasting. The narrative of Jesus’ healing the epileptic boy appears in all three synoptic Gospels. The details differ some, but the lesson is one of faith. Yes, a gift for the boy and for his family, his worried father who, in various telling, spells out how when the boy is having a seizure he falls into the kitchen fire, or he falls into the river, stream, or even an unattended bucket. As if the trauma of the shaking and arching wasn’t enough. Today’s Gospel, Matthew 17:14-21 is short and direct. In all three Jesus chides, or cries in frustration, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Luke 9:37-42 follows Mark closely. However in Mark 9:14-29, the longest and most detailed, not only are we witness to a dialogue between the frantic father and Jesus, but Jesus says, “All things are possible to him who believes.” And the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It concludes, not with the analogy of faith the size of the Middle Eastern mustard shrub seed, but as a reason why his disciples, already sent out to spread the Gospel and do signs, failed to heal, and that this kind of healing requires prayer, and possibly also fasting. So just what kind of belief is needed? And where do we get it?
For one, it isn’t a commodity. We don’t “get” it, in the sense that we can buy it, hoard it, use it up. What we have to “get” is the colloquial meaning of get. I get it. I understand it. Actions by faith come in two varieties. That which we accomplish through our own efforts, faith in ourselves. For example, playing a difficult musical passage after the long and hard work of practice. Or putting together a fine piece of carpentry after an apprenticeship. Or getting a good grade on a chemistry test after studying. We all do a lot of things that we attribute to our own efforts. So how does faith look if you are an apostle healing an epileptic? Picture the apostle laying hands on the boy’s head, shouting “Heal! Heal I said, ‘Heal in Jesus Name,’ blast you!” The apostle’s face is all scrunched up as hard as can be. And nothing happens. Because that is not the way. That is a spell, not prayer. Jesus is bringing his disciples and us into a deeper way of praying for God’s help.
When designing a spell, as in magic or witchcraft, what you do is gather symbols and objects, and perform actions intended to cause the desired effect, be it a love spell, a curse, or even a political cause. The neo-Pagan Anglo witches still claim that the Spanish Armada sank because they whistled up the wind that sank it (literally – whistling, which sounds like wind, can be used as an element of air spells). I read a “novena” of sorts from a friend who is a Wiccan and a tenured professor of folklore. It involved a candle inscribed with relevant astronomical sigils and other symbols recognizable to practitioners of that art. And there were chants calling for the success of the protests to end racism. A good cause. I have also attended rituals of the African diaspora and Norse Heathens and Greek mystery religions. I do not question how God comes to other people. I do know as a Christians I am called to the commandments of the Holy One as revealed through Jesus. I can’t heal by my own magic. I know how to, but, for me, it is wrong. I am vowed to a God who made me, and I am his. And the bond between us is not abusive, no matter how great the inequality between the Creator and his creature (me). It is based on love, a love in which we as Christians believe that God came to us as his Word in the person of Jesus, who died an obedient and terrible death out of love of and faith in his Father. My faith is mandated to be through Jesus, in petition to his Father. If we believe enough, as Jesus showed us, we need no other signs or pats on the back. We don’t need to see the results. That is not our job. Ours is to act in accordance with Jesus’ commandments. Period.
And that is hard. We study Scripture, pray, fast, receive the gift of the Sacrament, day in and day out, and serve, and we don’t see results. It is like taking an exam day after day and the grade is never posted. I don’t think we can try harder in order to believe more. I think we can only present ourselves, open our hearts to God’s spirit of Love and wisdom in prayer and study, and God will take care of the rest. Our prayer might be deep sighs and ecstatic visions, or an easier life of joy in little things – our children or the antics of our animal companions, the changing seasons in nature, a good meal, or even a good laugh at a disastrous one. Or both. Or in lamentation in those hard times. But always in trust. That is Faith.
All this makes me think that what Jesus is teaching is that faith is not magic. He is not a street sorcerer. Drop a coin in his bowl or with his disciple and he will perform for you. The faith he is teaching is hard. It is the faith of the poor sinner who prays at the temple and is more pleasing to God than the rich temple official with his loud prayers and pretenses. It is the faith of men and women, Jew and Gentile, in pain, in fear, in need, who drop at Jesus’ feet and plead, “Lord, help me.” It is trust. Trust in Jesus. The trust Jesus had in his Father so that he could walk, without sin, blindly, into the hands of the enemies of God. And when he prayed in the Garden and sweat blood, his faith was answered with orders and comfort to face the terrors ahead. That abiding faith in his Father was enough. Did he really know he would rise again? He preached it, or at least the post-Resurrection authors of the Gospels say he did. But his abiding faith in his Father is unquestioned. And the faithless and perverse generation, and aren’t we still, failed to see that abiding in him was the way of Faith. And what is the answer to how long he would be with us? Forever.
How do we grow toward that faith that doesn’t need proof or seek signs, that can be content that even if our deepest need, or most fervent prayers are not answered on demand. Faith that God is with us, working with us in the Spirit. With prayer. And here is the reason I always append, “and fasting”. Because sacrificial love, prayer directed toward the need of another, needs hard work. Prayer is work. Not the scrunched-up-face magic kind of work, but the kind that offers everything to God for God’s glory. And lets it go. In faith.
I can teach you how to do spells. There is some transference in terms of mental discipline. But that is what we do. And that is not Faith. Oh, we of little faith. But in Christ it is enough.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.