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§ 188. Christ tells the Disciples the Cause of their Failure.—The Power of Faith.—Prayer and Fasting. (Matt., xvii., 20, 21.)

After this experience, so important in view of the coming independent labours of the disciples, they asked of Christ, “Why could not we cast him out?” and thus gave him occasion to point out to them a twofold ground in their own selves, viz.: (1) a want of perfectly confiding faith, and (2) a want of that complete devotion to God and renunciation of the world which is implied in prayer and fasting. The former presupposes the latter, and the latter reacts upon the former. “Because of your unbelief;515515   I. e., want of lively confidence in the promises they had received of Divine Power, through Christ, to work miracles, and in their Divine calling and communion with God through Christ; in general, a want of religious conviction and confidence, as practically displayed in subduing all doubts and difficulties; e.g., such as Paul’s. for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,516516   The same figure as in the parables of the kingdom of God, probably intended to illustrate the growth of faith, once rooted in the heart, by the power of God that dwells in it: like the growth of the mighty tree from the diminutive seed-corn. ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove,517517   In Oriental manner, Christ takes a concrete figure from the visible creation before him, to set forth the general thought: “You will be able to remove all difficulties; apparent impossibilities will become possible.” and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”518518   The right limitation of this (not to extend it to an indefinite generality) lies in its reference, in the context, to men working as organs of the Spirit of God; it excludes, therefore, all self-will, refusing to submit to the Divine order, which is, indeed, antagonistic to faith itself. And then he adds (probably after some intermediate sentences not reported in this brief but substantial account): “Such a power of the Evil Spirit as is in this form of demoniacal disease can only be overcome by prayer and fasting.” That is, by that ardent 286prayer519519   The Jews and early Christians, in times of special prayer, retired from social intercourse and bodily enjoyments, restraining the bodily appetites; and the insertion of prayer and fasting together implies this state of entire collectedness and devotion. which is offered in humiliation before God, and abstraction from the world, in still collectedness of soul, undisturbed by corporeal feelings. Doubtless, by this whole statement, Christ intended to satisfy the disciples that they were not spiritually prepared fully to discharge the duties of their ministry.520520   There are some discrepancies in the Evangelists as to the collocation of the passages here referred to. The two verses in Matt. (xvii., 20, 21) harmonize well with each other and with the connexion. But in Mark, xi, 23, the saying of Christ in regard to the power of faith is given in a connexion not homogeneous to it, especially the withering of the fig-tree, which was not adapted to illustrate the positive efficiency of faith. In Luke, xvii., 6, a different figure is used, viz., the uprooting of a sycamore; and this passage was probably uttered in a different locality; as it is most likely that the Saviour, in view of his approaching separation from the disciples, took many occasions, and employed various figures, to encourage and strengthen their believing confidence.
   A more striking difference is, that in Mark’s account of Christ’s reply to the question of the disciples (ix., 28, 29) the first sentence (the power of faith) is left out, and the second only (prayer and fasting) given. As this last is given by both Matthew and Mark, it is more certain that it was spoken in that connexion. But then, again, Mark, ix., 23, contains a statement of the power of faith, addressed, not to the disciples, but to the father of the demoniac, in so natural a connexion, too, that it would be impossible to deny the aptness of the collocation; but in Matthew this is entirely wanting. This last omission, and the mistaken interpretation put upon γενεὰ ἄπιστος (Matt., xvii., 17), may have given occasion for referring διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν (v. 20) to that phrase in v. 17, and for here transferring the passage on the power of faith to this place from some other. Yet it is also possible that Christ uttered both expressions (viz., Mark, ix., 23, and Matt., xvii., 20), and that their similarity of thought induced each writer to retain but one. In confirmation of this, Luke does not mention (xvii., 5, 6) the historical connexion in which the thought was uttered; the disciples would not have asked, “Lord, increase our faith,” but for an experience of their want of it; and precisely such an experience is given in the accounts of Matthew and Mark.

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