MATTHEW 17:14-21
Pp Mark 14-29, Luke 9:37-43

Darkness and Light
O faithless and perverse generation

When one turns to the parallel passage of Mark here, one can’t help but wonder at the length of that author’s record of this incident, something which makes one consider that he may have had a special reason for filling in details and events which the other two have précised and simplified. Mark should certainly be read here to gain a fuller understanding of what transpired but Matthew shouldn’t be ignored for, although Mark has preserved the longest version, even he has omitted certain events which Matthew includes - for instance, the discourse with the disciples privately about their lack of faith (Mtw 17:20).

It’s Mark alone who tells us that the first thing which confronts Jesus upon His return is an argument which is ensuing between the scribes and disciples, presumably over their inability to deliver the demoniac (Mark 9:14-16) though the text stops short of spelling it out in so many words. If they were arguing about some other matter, it may be that their negative input was contributing to their lack of faith in the situation, causing them to doubt - but this is going too far to be worthy of acceptance.

It’s Mark also who alone records the second conversation which Jesus has with the father (Mark 6:20-24) along with the exact circumstances surrounding the child’s deliverance including the advancing crowd, the words of Jesus which brought deliverance, his appearance of having died and Jesus’ lifting of the child up to show them that he wasn’t (Mtw 6:25-27).

It’s only Mark who records Jesus’ answer to the disciples that this type of demon could only be cast out by prayer (Mark 9:29). Some manuscripts add ‘and fasting’. Indeed, the majority of manuscripts have this additional phrase but, because the ones which omit it are generally considered to be the more reliable, it’s normally accepted by translators that it didn’t exist in the original. It must be remembered that both ‘prayer’ and ‘fasting’ are concepts which are not expected here seeing as Jesus has just spoken about a ‘faithless and perverse generation’ rather than a ‘prayerless and gluttonous’ one and simply to assert that fasting is not what one would have expected is insufficient.

Certainly, Jesus has previously defended the disciples for their lack of fasting (Mtw 9:14-15) and one could argue either way for its inclusion or exclusion on this basis. Certainly ‘prayer and fasting’ were an important practice in the early Church (Acts 14:23) but these two places are the only occurrences of both English words in a single verse in the NT.

Most readers will also be aware that Mtw 17:21 is missing from most of the modern translations and that this verse, when included in a Gospel manuscript, reads

‘But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting’

but, because the codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus and the ancient Syriac and Egyptian versions omit them, it’s concluded that they couldn’t have been part of the original work. However, in attempting to explain how they appear here, Mattask comments that

‘They would seem to have been imported from Mark 9:29 in the interest of harmonisation’

This does have an element of logic to it for the manuscripts which are considered to be less reliable are more likely to have the full sentence which includes ‘and fasting’. However, it does still remain a purely subjective assessment of what the original manuscript must have looked like.

The commentator needs, however, to come to terms with these issues to adequately interpret the final discussion between Jesus and the disciples. Personally, it would be easier if Mark 9:29 didn’t exist at all in any manuscript for there is a need to bring together Jesus’ two explanations of why the disciples weren’t able to cast the demon out and adequately show how the answer which outlines the two aspects of their failure are equal parts in determining how they might succeed on future occasions.

I shall accept that the phrase ‘and fasting’ is not part of the original, however.

As noted, Matthew adds a totally different response of Jesus to the disciples’ question regarding their inability to deal with the problem (Mtw 17:19-20) and one wonders whether the commentators’ assertions that Matthew simply condensed what Mark had written is wholly accurate! After all, Mark’s simple phrase is about as concise as one can get - Matthew’s expansion indicates that he had a different recollection that he wanted to record or manuscripts before him which recorded this response and he perhaps chose one at the expense of that which Mark recorded.

It’s not unlikely that Jesus spoke of both problems and this is the position I’ll be taking.

Darkness and Light

Before we begin a commentary on this passage, we need to contrast the victory and glory of the previous incident on the mountain top, the transfiguration, with the defeat and darkness of the situation into which Jesus returns, putting to one side the discussion which Jesus and the disciples have as they descend from the one to the other.

Raphael’s ‘The Transfiguration’ is extremely poignant here and the reader should avail himself of any on line reproduction he can find and take a short time simply considering what it is that the artist is trying to portray. I have included a copy of an image which appears on line (below right) on the Web Gallery of Art but a larger copy gives more detail - a larger copy is on this web site (and I must highly commend the web site for giving me permission to use their image - if only other web sites were more concerned to allow non-profit web sites rights to images, I'm sure the world would be a more colourful and graphically better place to be!)

I first saw this painting back in 1988 in Geneva as a chalk work on a pavement near the city’s central Macdonalds’ restaurant (reproduced on the left) and both my wife and I walked up a little elevated path and were able to overlook the overall picture rather than find it difficult to take in the total picture, being so close to where the artist was working.

The reproducer had also added to the contrast between the light of the transfiguration and the darkness of the valley scene by not including the lower third of the picture where it brightens up a little. Even so, in the original picture, one can see what the artist seems to be conveying to the observer - namely, that there is a mix of both spiritual darkness and light here, Jesus being the One who is making all the difference to the situation in which He’s found.

Raphael’s painting isn’t so accurate as to take one’s breath away, however, for the two characters to the left of the ‘mount’ and who appear over the summit are hardly identifiable by recourse to the Scriptures, the mountain is more like a dirt heap at the local council’s rubbish tip and the pointing towards Jesus by those below is hardly possible.

But, a little artistic license shouldn’t detract us from the teaching of the painting and at least He’s captured the image as a time towards the sunrise (or is it sunset?) which is another observation which is possibly correct.

Whatever, we would do well to consider the depths to which Jesus now comes following the glorification on the mountain shortly before and the suffering and agony of the persecution and crucifixion which was shortly to take place away from here in Jerusalem. Both the reader and myself might have wanted to stay forever amidst that mountain top and revelled in the presence of God but, for Jesus, His commitment to fulfil the reason for which He came into the world is certain and assured, even though it means mixing once more with the darkness and unbelief of that present generation.

From the foretaste of the anticipated final victory, Jesus descends into the reality of the defeat of doubt and the situation which has been developing while He’s been away from the remaining disciples.

O faithless and perverse generation
Mtw 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41

The question which we need to answer here is to whom is this saying of Jesus is addressed, seeing as the answer to it has harvested numerous propositions in the pages of the commentators. For instance, Matfran comments that

‘It is the disciples’ little faith...which provokes this complaint...’

while Marklane that Jesus’

‘...exclamation is seen to be a personal word addressed to the disciples who alone had failed at the crucial moment’

That Jesus’ words are addressed to the ‘generation’, however, and not to the followers of Christ is noted by Luknol who expands upon his belief that the words are primarily directed towards His followers by stating that

‘The criticism would seem to be addressed to the failed disciples as representatives of the generation’

though it’s immediately difficult to see just how those who had demonstrated their commitment to follow after Him and to obey what He said could be associated as types of the nation amongst whom Jesus both lived and ministered.

Markcole, on the other hand, sees in Jesus’ words a response to the father of the child who’d been brought to the disciples

‘...who is blamed for lack of faith, while the disciples are blamed for lack of prayer...’

This, however, seems to rely more on the concluding words of Mark’s account, however, rather than on Matthew’s ending which records for us Jesus’ words that the disciples were unable to cast the demon out because of their lack of faith or ‘unbelief’ (Mtw 17:19-20).

But unbelief may be attributed neither to the man who brings his son nor to the disciples in Mathag’s view but to the

‘...unbelieving crowd that had become involved...’

where Reiling and Swellengrebel being quoted in Lukmor expand this belief in seeing it relating

‘ all people who are present and had failed to show faith enough for the healing of the boy’

where this would place healing in the realms of a corporate faith which needed to be exercised and applied before it could be reasonably expected that the demonic might be cast out and healing brought about.

These various attributions should warn us, therefore, from making too hasty a decision as to who Jesus may have been referring to by His statement. Indeed, if we look at the passage carefully in all three records, we note that there’s something about three of the groups present which could be said to be a demonstration of their lack of faith. As such, it’s probably best to understand Jesus’ statement as commenting on the entire situation rather than as being directed towards one man or group of men.

Firstly, then, there are the scribes. Their presence here is enough to warrant some commentators to suggest that the entire incident must have taken place back in Galilean territory rather than near to Caesarea Philippi in the tetrarchy of Philip which, consequently, would necessitate an identification of the mountain of transfiguration with somewhere away from the Hermon range. However, I have previously shown that there was a large enough Jewish presence in Philip’s tetrarchy to warrant the Romans detaining them at the time of the Jewish War from attempting civil unrest and it seems logical to assume that they must have had their own scribes and religious leaders with them.

The phrase in Mark 9:28 that Jesus entered ‘the house’ is also misleading as this phrase - if rendered this way in the Greek - could be indicating a house which was well known to them to the point of being their own as it may be in, for instance, Mtw 9:28. The Greek, however, simply says ‘a house’ with no definite article and it doesn’t have to be taken as referring to any specific building that may have been known either to the writer or reader.

These considerations are hardly important to the identification of the scribes as the ones who lacked faith, but the reader may want to consider them if the identification of the mountain is important.

They had been arguing with the disciples concerning the problem of the demoniac not being delivered (Mark 9:14,16-17). In fact, they were probably taking great delight that the disciples had been unable to cast this demon out of the boy and, instead of casting it out themselves (which would have demonstrated their authority over the demonic and given adequate grounds for their arguments), they argued with the disciples.

They show themselves, then, to be faithless and perverse for it was just this sort of opportunity that they seem to have desired for them to be able to discredit the work of Christ.

Secondly, there’s the father of the demoniac. His words in Mark 9:22 directed to Jesus that he wondered whether He could do anything show that this father didn’t possess the same sort of faith as, for instance, that of the leper in Mtw 8:1-4 who says ‘You can if You will’, pleading Jesus for compassion that He will do what He knows He can do.

The leper, in effect, says

‘You can heal me if You will

where there’s demonstrated faith in His ability but doubt in His compassion. The father, on the other hand, says

‘You will heal him if You can

where there is doubt in Jesus’ ability but faith in His compassion. The father’s faith doesn’t run to ‘You can’ but ‘If You can’ and is a solid confession of doubt.

Christ challenges that unbelief (Mark 9:23) and receives a determination of willing change from the father (Mark 9:24) before He heals his son.

Thirdly, and finally, there are the disciples - or, at least, the nine of them who’ve stayed behind in the valley below the mountain where the four of them are returning from. The disciples lacked the kind of faith that was required for them to be able to have cast the demon out (Mtw 17:19-20). We should notice Mark 9:29 here where Jesus talks of the necessity of prayer (and, maybe, fasting). The two combine together very well and are two different aspects of the one truth that faith operating through (persevering and/or persistent?) prayer will be able to cast out the demonic from people - not mere words, nor a reliance upon one’s previous success in deliverance (something which the disciples obviously had - see Luke 10:17-20, 9:1-2, Mark 6:12-13).

The disciples already had the authority given them but they seem to have lacked the faith (Mtw 10:1). Without faith in a follower’s heart concerning the promises of God contained, for instance, in Mark 16:17-18, neither will present day believers find an ability to meet the need of each situation in which they find themselves. This interrelationship between faith and prayer will be dealt with in the last section.

Concluding, then, there is evidence to conclude that any one of these three individuals or groups could be the ones to whom Jesus addresses the condemnation, but it’s probably best not to exclude any one of them from His intentions - indeed, it’s probably best to see in Jesus’ words a pronouncement of the entire situation which greets His return and include all the crowds who are making up the situation into which He will now demonstrate His authority.

We are, perhaps, going too far if we accept Matmor’s statement that

‘...Jesus complains not only about the powerless disciples and the crowd looking on but about the whole generation [referring] to all the people alive at that time, at least in Galilee [sic - they were near Caesarea Philippi]’

but that Jesus is summating the situation and applying it to the nation which He has been moving about and ministering to is correct. The statement, however, addresses the immediate situation and should be taken as a local declaration concerning what was transpiring - that is, absolutely nothing!

We need to look at what it is that Jesus actually meant when he spoke to those present and announced them to be both ‘faithless’ and ‘perverse’. The first of these words (Strongs Greek number 571) needn’t concern us too much but we should note that the translation ‘faithless’ is only one possible interpretation, Kittels commenting that

‘...the more likely sense is “unbelieving”...’

I don’t see too much difference here, though, and with Jesus’ comments to the disciples that they lacked faith (Mtw 17:20) and a similar discussion between Himself and the father (Mark 9:23), it would appear that the regular meaning of ‘one who lacks faith’ is the best interpretation of the word to opt for.

However, the word ‘perverse’ (Strongs Greek number 1294) occurs seven times in the NT (Mtw 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41, Phil 2:15 [quotes Deut 32:5], Luke 23:2, Acts 13:10, 20:30) and is open to some interpretation of its meaning in this context.

Kittels notes at the outset of their discussion of the word that

‘The verb means “to twist”, “to dislocate”, “to confuse”. Inner defects lead to confusion of action. Moral corruption is sometimes denoted’

and it’s this idea of being distorted and warped that appears to be what’s intended. Shortly before Moses was to die and be gathered to his people in the land of Moab, he spoke to the Israelites (Deut 32:5) saying that

‘They have dealt corruptly with [God], they are no longer His children because of their blemish; they are a perverse and crooked generation’

where the LXX translation uses the same Greek word to render the Hebrew. Even though God had shown Himself to be faithful to the nation, yet they had proved themselves unfaithful to Him by their actions and reactions in the situations in which they had found themselves. Where one would have expected them to have responded truly to God’s works amongst them, they’d reacted crookedly, away from what should have been their correct reaction.

And, therefore, they were perverse in the sense that one couldn’t anticipate what they would do. When good was offered them, they chose bad - when God wanted to do something in their midst, they couldn’t believe that it would happen - when they found themselves in a difficult situation, they failed to see that God wouldn’t leave them to their own devices and take steps to miraculously deliver them.

And so it was with the generation who stood before Jesus. They had seen Jesus do great and mighty things in their midst - but they still couldn’t believe that such a thing would happen in the next and subsequent situation - in this case the demoniac who needed deliverance from the power of satan. Even though Jesus had been with them near on three years in His ministering capacity, still they lacked the belief that expected God to move. Therefore, quite rightly, Matfran comments that the phrase ‘O faithless and perverse generation...’ is an

‘...expression of exasperation [and] a rare insight into the frustration of Jesus’ appeal to an unresponsive world’

Marklane is also correct when he comments that

‘Jesus’ poignant cry of exasperation is an expression of weariness which is close to heart break...’

It wasn’t that the crowds who were around Him didn’t know what had been happening through Him in the past years, but they couldn’t believe that the power would be still at work. Instead of accepting the power of God, the scribes argued over it (Mark 9:14-16), the disciples couldn’t believe sufficiently to demonstrate it (Mtw 17:19-20) and the father of the son who was brought for deliverance couldn’t believe that Jesus was able to do the miracle (Mark 9:22 - this happened after Jesus’ statement, however).

In all, it was a negative situation that stood as a sad conclusion to Jesus’ period of ministry to the nation of Israel. As a preacher once said

‘Doubt is the darkroom where negatives are developed’

and it was this negative situation which, figuratively speaking, took Jesus’ breath away. After all He’d done, they still had difficulty believing - just as the nation had done hundreds of years previously after having found themselves in the wilderness but having witnessed the power of God revealed on their behalf (Deut 32:5).

Mtw 17:19-20, Mark 9:28-29

I mentioned above that there needs to be some attempt at a harmonisation of the two different responses which Jesus gives to the question which is put privately by the disciples (presumably the nine who stayed in the valley while the other three ascended the mountain with Jesus). To the question of why they couldn’t cast the demon out, Mtw 17:20 records Jesus as saying

‘Because of your little faith. For truly, 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 to you’

where the word translated ‘little faith’ (Strongs Greek number 570) is one which is directly related to the word translated ‘faithless’ in Mtw 17:17. Mark 9:29, however, records Jesus as saying

‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer’

and I’ve noted above both that some manuscripts add the phrase ‘with fasting’ (which I shall ignore) and that the entire sentence with the phrase ‘with fasting’ is omitted in Matthew’s version of the incident by most of the modern translations so that Mtw 17:21 is missing from the text - I shall also be adopting this decision even though it doesn’t solve any problems with the harmonisation!

Firstly, we shall attempt to deal with Matthew’s statements. It may surprise the reader (because of the frequency with which it’s quoted in the present day Church) to note that this phrase about faith like a grain of mustard seed only occurs twice in the Gospels but on two separate and distinct occasions, the other place being Luke 17:6 where the example given of what’s possible with faith is different in that it speaks of a tree being rooted from its place and cast into the sea, concluding with the words that the tree would ‘obey’ the believer. In Matthew, however, we’re thinking of mountains and movement on land with the conclusion that, if this faith is in the believer’s life, nothing will ever be impossible - a statement which is probably as frightening as it is exciting! The other three occurrences of the mustard seed are all in connection with the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 13:31, Mark 4:31, Luke 13:19).

I noted in the other Matthean occurrence that the mustard seed appears to have been proverbial in Israel for that which was minute and insignificant and cited three Rabbinic sources as proof. It’s difficult to see in its use here anything other than smallness being meant and described and justification for the traditional interpretation of this passage is assured!

It’s always worried me that Jesus never said

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed...’

but that He spoke of

‘ as [or ‘like’] a mustard seed...’

which, if taken literally, seems to infer that the faith which is necessary is that which a mustard seed possesses! And this is what I did originally believe in the early years of my christian life. You may well laugh but there was a semblance of logic to my belief for a mustard seed doesn’t worry about how it’s to grow or how it’s to function - it simply gets on with developing into the greatest of all the shrubs and never doubts that it can do so to the point of failing to expand.

In a similar way, faith in the believer should be caught rather than taught - it should be a natural consequence of a life with God rather than something which men and women have to psyche themselves up for - it should be the overflow of a life which is fully dependent upon the God who is expected to do everything necessary both in them and through them.

The disciples certainly weren’t in that position and had singularly failed to deliver the demoniac. No matter what verbal formulae they’d attempted, what accompanying action they used, they hadn’t been able to achieve their objective - in short, they’d worked hard at delivering the boy and had got nowhere so that, in a very real sense, their faith could be said to have been stimulated into action rather than for it be allowed to flow out from them.

I don’t disagree with my first belief, I must add, but I don’t believe that that’s what Jesus was talking about and it seems best to take the mention of the mustard seed as indicative of size - but, even here, the interpretation isn’t at all easy for, if Jesus is saying that they could have achieved their objective if they’d had the smallest of faith, the implication is that they actually had no faith at all! If the mustard seed was proverbial for being the smallest part of anything, there would remain no quantity which could be any smaller.

It’s tempting to take the mention of the mustard seed as personifying weakness rather than size but this appears not to have been done in first century Israel from any sources which are available to me. We are left, therefore, with an interpretation which speaks of the size of faith.

However, the similar passage in Luke 17:5-6 can help us here in our interpretation. When the disciples on another occasion ask Jesus to increase their faith, He responds by avoiding a direct answer of saying that in such a way may it be done and, rather, points out that it isn’t more faith that’s required but genuine faith. As Lukmor notes

‘It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God’

and Luknol that

‘What is needed is not the increase of faith but the exercise of faith...’

Therefore, what Jesus is here asserting is that the disciples lacked faith - they might have the authority over the power of the enemy (Mtw 10:1) but they lacked the faith which would experience God move in the situation which confronted them.

Therefore, the emphasis is not so much on the size of faith but on the existence of it which would demonstrate the power of God taking hold of the situation and bringing about God’s will. Matfran is absolutely correct, therefore, when he comments that

‘It is important to observe here that it is not the amount of faith which brings the impossible within reach, but the power of God which is available to even the smallest faith’

The disciples lacked faith for the situation - they didn’t lack sufficient faith - and it was this which had caused them to fail.

How then could they expect to achieve such faith? In the words of Mark 9:29, this would be gained


The problem wasn’t so much that they had no faith but that they didn’t know how to get it. They thought that by repeatedly trying to cast out the demonic from the boy, they would eventually succeed, not realising that faith needed to be acquired and that this could only come about by prayer.

I have, of course, interpreted the instruction that such demonic problems can only be solved ‘by prayer’ in relation to the need to acquire real faith but Marklane’s comments here, although accurate, don’t appear to be certain as to how they’re to be applied. He writes that

‘...Jesus explained to the disciples that such malign evil spirits can be expelled only by a full reliance upon the unlimited power of God expressed through prayer’

But how might we understand this? That they were to kneel before the demoniac and enquire of God? That they should steal away to some quiet place with the demoniac and dispel the crowd because of the doubt they were generating? That they should go apart from everyone and pray the demon out from a distance? Or that they should acquire strength apart from the situation and then return to apply it into the demoniac’s life?

One’s spiritual upbringing will largely define the option chosen but, if both faith and prayer are seen to be integral parts of successful deliverance, then faith received through communion with God in prayer seems about the only way possible to harmonise them as two aspects of the one necessary action.

One final note before we conclude our considerations on this passage.

Even though 11.5 chapters of this Gospel remain to be read and dealt with (about 41%), this is the last miracle of healing/deliverance save one that’s recorded, the last one being in Mtw 20:29-34. It would be wrong to think that the miraculous didn’t take place or that healing and deliverance were consigned to the past but, for Matthew, it would appear that there is now a change of tack that the reader might listen to the words of Christ as the cross fast approaches and not to be side-tracked into the wonders which were being performed.

To the writer of this Gospel, then, the miracles are the founding stone upon which Jesus’ claims are staked. But it’s the cross which is the unique work of the Messiah which mustn’t be missed.