Bring him to me — Matthew 17:14–18

The glory of Jesus — part 4

40 blogs of Lent — day 31

The painting ‘Transfiguration’ by Raphael is unusual. Painted as an altarpiece for  Narbonne Cathedral in France and commissioned by the later Pope Clement VII, the upper part of the picture shows Jesus in radiant glory with Moses and Elijah alongside and the lower part in contrast shows the chaos of the 9 disciples faced with a crowd and a boy who was brought by his Father whom they could not cure. Why Jesus, Moses and Elijah are depicted levitated I have no idea, I just put it down to artistic licence and it being the sort of thing they did in the Renaissance period.

Transfuguration by Raphael

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 is an epileptic 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. 

Matthew 17:14–18 ESV UK

I have always read this passage as a defeat for the nine disciples who were not on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured. They had been sent out to preach and heal and given power over demons. “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons,” said Jesus (Matthew 10:8) I now doubt the way I read the passage, this is not about a defeat, this is a triumph.

The ESV says the boy was epileptic, but this is reading modern diagnosis into an ancient text, epilepsy was not diagnosed at that time, a literal translation says he was moonstruck and is translated in older English translations as lunatick. Was the problem epilepsy or self harm? It is hard to tell from such a short description, but whatever it was the boy’s father was understandably very worried.

The reason that I am not holding the disciples to task on this one is that I had thought that the faithless and twisted generation Jesus was talking about was them, they had failed to believe. But this is not addressed to the disciples, it is addressed to the boy’s father who had come with a crowd. Mark’s longer version of this story adds detail. The crowd included scribes. The religious leaders did not believe in Jesus. Their opposition to Jesus has been escalating. Mark also shows a problem in the boy’s father’s faith, “I believe; help my unbelief!” he says. He comes not in faith, but doubting.

This is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus shows exasperation in this way, and the reason each time is the same, unbelief. The exasperation will link in to the next narrative section, but also back the beginning of this one, when Jesus was rejected by the people of Nazareth, Yet through this narrative as the opposition from the Jews was growing, so was belief from the Gentile lands around.

Jesus says, “Bring the boy to me,” that is always the way. Bring him to me. Unlike in Nazareth earlier where lack of belief in Jesus meant that he could not heal people here he heals the boy in front of people despite their unbelief. This is one of the great triumphs of Jesus ministry, and at the same time a tragedy. Does it make any difference to their belief? It does not say so, and I suspect not. Jesus had healed many before and they came disbelieving, one more miracle, even one in front of their eyes, would not make any difference to a closed heart.

Lord Jesus, open our hearts to you.

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