The need for discernment — Matthew 17:19–23

The glory of Jesus — part 5

40 blogs of Lent — day 32


There are 5 times that Jesus uses mustard seeds in his teaching. Three are where he, using hyperbole as emphasis, talked about the smallest of seeds growing into the largest of trees (Matthew 13:31–32 and parallel passages in Mark and Luke). The other one apart from this one in the passage below is in Luke 17:6 where he answers the disciple’s plea for more faith by saying, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”

There is a 14th Century English saying that says, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” It points to the same thing.

A large tree, in leaf by the side of a wide river or lake, casting a shadow over a large area and an extensive root system spreading towards the camera. It is probably a horse-
Photo by Daniel Watson on

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like 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.”

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23 and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew 17:19–23 ESV UK

The disciples are bold to ask Jesus about why they could not cast the demon. He has just castigated the crowd, which included Scribes, which came with the sick boy and his father. When do they choose a good time? These are men who had been commissioned by Jesus to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons, but there had been a great power failure: They had failed to heal the boy. Would Jesus be angry with them?

All the commentaries I have seen on line say yes, he was angry, but I disagree. My autistic brain is good at seeing patterns, and now that I have slowly gone through most of the Gospel of Matthew I can see things coming together that I had missed before. Jesus has been using “You of little faith” as a term of endearment for the disciples. He is not against little faith, because little faith, even that as tiny as a mustard seed, grows into massive faith, as big as a mustard tree, big enough to move mountains. Jesus is not giving them a telling off for not having enough faith but encouraging them to keep on following him and to let their faith grow. They came to him discouraged, they had tried to do the right thing and got it wrong. Jesus says it is OK, their faith will grow so that they will be able to do far greater than this.

The disciples did not lack faith, they lacked discernment. The boy’s father had brought a boy who he said was moonstruck, lunatick in old English translations and epileptic in modern ones. Jesus did not heal a mental or psychological disorder, he cast a demon out of him. We will not cast out demons if we treat it as a mental or psychological disorder and we will not cast out epilepsy if it is not caused by a demon. Discernment of spirits is a gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on the church, but not everybody who has the Holy Spirit has this gift. “to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits,” (1 Corinthians 13:10).

It is generally believed by modern Bible scholars that Mark’s Gospel was the first of the Gospels to be written and that in passages which are shared Matthew took Mark’s version as his template. When Mark tells the story he is correct to say the boy had a demon, putting it into someones words, as Mark does to the boy’s father, was a common way of telling the story. Matthew does not mention the of the demon until Jesus casts it out. As Matthew was present at the event and Mark not I prefer Matthew’s understanding with no detriment to Mark.

This encouragement did not last long. Back in Galilee Jesus and the disciples regathered. We do not know where the mount of transfiguration was, but it looks like they dispersed and made their own way back. Jesus does not tell them anything new, he simply reminds them of what he said to them at Caesarea Philippi, that he would be killed, and that he will rise again.

John Bunyan, in the hymn at the end of The Pilgrim’s Progress wrote, “There’s no discouragement can make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a Pilgrim,” but the disciples were a group that were easily discouraged.

Poor disciples, they do not understand what the mission of Jesus means, that would come to understand that after he had risen again. We have hindsight, we know that Jesus came as Messiah as prophet, priest and king, his priestly role was to offer the sacrifice that was himself, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world that John the Baptist has prophesied.

We know that Jesus rises again, we live in Lent, but Easter is coming. The victory has been won for all people for all time.

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