The disciples ask Jesus, “Why were we not able to cast it out?” (Matt 17:19).
We, like the disciples, also have many demons in our lives and in the lives of those we love that we’d like to cast out. So we often ask similar questions.
Why can’t I make others do right? Why can’t I seem to help my addicted loved to sober up? Why can’t I convince my employer to give me the raise I deserve – or the company to hire me? Why can’t I make them love me? What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me? Why does it seem that my prayers go unanswered?
Jesus answers the disciples’ question in a way that I never could. For one thing, I don’t know other people’s minds and hearts, like Jesus does. Jesus knows what we believe. And he knows the degree of our faith and whether or it is “little.” I struggle sometimes to know even my own mind and heart. Nobody knows but Jesus.
And Jesus comes straight out with his answer to the question: “Because of your little faith!” (Matt 17:20). If you had faith like a mustard seed, even the mountain would move if you told it to! (17:20).
Pani Katie put mustard seed on the grocery list recently. She’s been making refrigerator pickles with our recent crop of cucumbers and mustard seed is an ingredient in the recipe. So I’ve recently been in contact with the specimen and, as I’m sure you know, it is indeed a small and puny thing. Especially when we compare it to the size of a mountain. Though, you know, for God the difference in size between the two is pretty insignificant. Remember, we are speaking of the one who made both the atom and the universe – both that which is infinitely small from our perception and that which is infinitely large.
I think that, from a divine perspective, there may be more of a qualitative than a quantitative difference between mountains and mustard seed. Mustard seed, like all seed, is a living thing. A thing with the potential for growth and life – compared to mountains made of rock, which have no life in them. So the missing ingredient between us and moving mountains, Jesus says, is a living faith – a faith that may be small, but a faith that’s alive and filled with potential for growth.
So if our faith is too little, how do we grow it? First, it may help to know what faith is and is not. Faith is not mere belief or opinion. It’s not simply “believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” as the mother in A Miracle on 34th Street tells her daughter. Faith, it is revealed to us in the letter to the Hebrews, is the substance or foundation of things hoped for and the evidence or proof of things unseen (11:1). It’s the proof! – not merely the belief. “Faith is a true knowledge,” says St. Maximus the Confessor. Faith is a divine gift. It is assurance from the only one who can truly assure – from God, who is Truth and the Author of all that is. So the only way we’re going to gain faith, is if God gives it to us.
Now, we also have to accept the gift. There is a synergy. God is the giver of faith and we are the receiver of that faith. Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matt 7:7). So there’s more required of us. Asking and praying are also necessary.
Jesus doesn’t give his disciples only a one-part answer to their question. Just as there’s more than mustard seed in a pickle recipe, Jesus gives his disciples a three-part recipe for demon extraction and mountain removal. First, their faith must grow, like a seed grows. Secondly, Jesus says, “this kind comes out only by prayer” (17:21). And third, also by fasting (17:21).
As to the second ingredient – prayer – here’s a great prayer: “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). When the father of the possessed boy (in the parallel gospel story in Mark) prays this prayer, the Lord delivers his son (Mark 9:14-29). Mark’s version doesn’t mention the mustard seed, but only in Mark do we hear this prayer. This prayer exemplifies the mustard seed – the tiny faith with seminal potential for growth. A faith that prays for growth is a faith that will grow like a seed that is planted and watered.
But if we just sit here with our little faith alone and do no praying, the mustard seed stays in the spice rack and produces no life. In that case, I think the mountains are going to stay put. Their roots are deep.
Faith and prayer together can move them. Jesus puts faith and prayer together in his recipe. Together, they have great power. For example, St. James writes that “the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:15). Those are miracles as great as moving mountains!
The way to cast out the demon and the way to move the mountain is with faith and prayer. But we’re not done yet! Those are points one and two. Jesus has a third point: fasting! This is an especially appropriate thing for us to think on today because we are now halfway through the Dormition Fast.
Why would fasting be necessary? Isn’t it a vain and human activity? We might think that if we have a dualist perspective on reality and human life. If we put the things of the spirit and of God in one box and the things of the body and the earth in another box. But that’s not the way it works with us humans really. We are spirit and body at the same time and what we do with our bodies has an effect in our spirits and vice versa. And one thing Jesus teaches us to do with our bodies is fast.
Now, almost everybody fasts every day. That’s why we call the first meal “breakfast,” because it breaks the fast we’ve kept all night long. Fasting is simply not eating food. Because we’re Byzantine, we like to make it a whole lot more complicated than that. But, when you get right down to it, fasting means not eating food. Sometimes our complications get so extravagant that we forget to actually fast at all! Maybe we keep all the rules in terms of what kinds of food to eat and not eat but we go right on eating all day every day! And that’s not fasting. That’s abstinence. That’s a diet. And it does have a value. It’s a good thing. It’s part of our tradition. But fasting, it needs to be remembered, means not eating food – for however long. One of our traditions is to fast until we receive Holy Communion. Holy Communion always breaks the fast. If we are going to receive Holy Communion, it is good for that to be the first food that we eat that day. It’s certainly going to be the most important food that we eat that day, so why not make it the first food we eat? Put first things first.
I remember when I was growing up, we always would eat a meal after church on Sunday morning and in my family we called that meal breakfast whether it was at 10 a.m. or noon or 2 pm. It was breakfast because it was the first meal of the day after receiving Holy Communion.
If it is a fasting day, some fast until noon. Another tradition is to fast until sunset and then to eat one meal. The meal can have as many calories as we need for sustenance, and all the right proportions of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, but it is important to have the experience of fasting.
Jesus himself fasts. And he commands us to fast. We fast every Wednesday and Friday. And we have seasons of fasting like this one. And we fast every day before we receive Holy Communion. And we fast every night while we sleep.
Fasting is an important part of life and health. It’s interesting to see this new trend of intermittent fasting which is essentially proposing what the Church has been proposing for millennia, but from a fitness and health perspective. That’s not actually surprising, because the body and health of the body are important also to spiritual health. The body is a part of who we are. We believe in the resurrection of the dead. We do not believe in the dissolution of the body. We are not Platonists. We do not regard matter is evil. We are not Gnostics. The body is a good creature of God. And he has united himself to us through the body.
So what good is fasting from a spiritual perspective? And what does it have to do with faith and with prayer? And how can it help to cast out demons and move mountains? It’s an interesting question. I think one thing that fasting can do for us is to inspire us – in the literal sense. That is, help to fill us with the spirit. I don’t mean by this to sacramentalize fasting (although, there is a kind of sacramentality of all things), but fasting imitates the spirits, who do not eat, and so can help to make us more aware of our own spiritual nature and also of the Holy Spirit who is within us.
We received the Holy Spirit in baptism and in our chrismation, we received the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are inspired – filled with the spirit.
But then, we sate ourselves with the things of the world. Do we not? I tell you, when I’m deep into a good meal, all the senses of my body are turned on. It gives the pleasure of taste and touch and smell and sight. My body is fully engaged in that meal. All kinds of dopamine is being released into the pleasure center of my brain while I eat it too. It’s not altogether unlike taking certain drugs. People get addicted to food. Believe me, I know.
Food is a beautiful and good thing. God made it. We need it to sustain our bodies. And, don’t forget, that he becomes our food. The Eucharist is God become the bread of life for us to eat. So I’m not here to malign food. And Jesus is not maligning food when he tells us we must fast in order to cast out demons and move mountains.
But if we never fast, if we’re always eating and sating ourselves, we become creatures of the flesh. I’ve warned against spiritualism, Platonism, and dualism which all deny the goodness of the body and its proper role in human existence. But even worse is materialism, which denies the spirit and sometimes even the existence of the spirit. While the truth is that the spirit is superior to the material. God is Spirit!
If we sate ourselves with the things of the world all the time, and I don’t mean just food, we forget God. We forget the things of the spirit. We forget our own spiritual nature. We forget that we are spirits. In the resurrection, Paul teaches us that we will have a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:44).
Meanwhile, fasting makes us more like spirits. Spirits do not eat. However, it doesn’t make us better people, because spirits do not eat whether they are good or evil. Angels do not eat and demons do not eat. So let’s not let our fasting become something about what we pat ourselves on the back. Being spiritual is just what we are. Good for us. We are aware of what we are. That’s essential, but it’s not enough. This is why Jesus’s answer is three-fold. Fasting alone won’t do it. It needs always to be joined also with prayer and with faith. These three ingredients operating together in our lives will give us the power the cast out our demons and move mountains.