And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, 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. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him." 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." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" 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." But this kind never comes out but by prayer and fasting.
(Matthew 17:14-21 ESV)
Last night Jama and I watched the wonderful 1992 release, Leap of Faith, which is one of Steve Martin’s finest movie roles. Co-starring Debra Winger (Officer and a Gentleman) and Lukas Haas (Witness), the movie tells the story of commercial tent revival preacher Jonas Nightingale. When one of his trucks breaks down in the small town of Rustwater, Kansas, rather than lose several days’ revenue, Nightingale decides to set up the big top among the hicks.
One of the townspeople is a 15 year old who, years before, had been injured in the auto wreck that killed his mother and father. He now walks only with the aid of crutches and a metal brace to straighten and secure his shattered leg.
All of Nightingale’s “healings” are fakes. In fact, throughout the movie Jonas is straight up front with the local sheriff and several others that this is nothing more than a stage show, and the true believers are comforted by it. What’s the harm in that? The problem comes when one evening at the “show” the boy comes forward for healing.
The centerpiece of the stage show is a life-size crucifix, depicting the dying Jesus on the cross. All of the others who have come for healing have reached out for Jonas to touch them. But the boy bypasses Jonas and fixes his gaze straight into the eyes of the statue of Jesus. When he reaches out and touches the feet of the image, he is instantly healed. He drops his crutches and walks normally.
Thus ends Jonas Nightingale. After the healing he leaves the stage and goes out back to soothe his nerves with a few sips from his hip flask. Later that evening he goes back in and yells at the image of Jesus, basically saying, “If you’re for real, then why didn’t you ever heal me? The boy steps into the tent and asks if he can go on the road with Jonas. But Jonas sits him down and says, “I run a show here. A lot of smoke and noise strictly for the suckers! I've been pulling scams since I was your age. If there's one thing I know, it's how to spot the genuine article. That's what you gotta watch out for. Not the cops. You can always get around the cops. But what you can never get around is the genuine article. And you, kid, are the genuine article.”
The boy says innocently, “Are you saying you think you're a fake?” And Jonas replies, know I'm a fake. The boy says, “What difference does it make, if you get the job done?” And Jonas says, “Kid, it makes all the difference in the world.”
It is easy to miss the point of Matthew 17 and focus either on the healing itself or Jesus’ rebuke of his disciples for their “little” faith. The escape hatch through which most faith healers climb is to say there is nothing wrong with them. The reason the healing didn’t happen this time is the audience didn’t have enough faith or the person to be healed didn’t have enough faith. But it turns out that the “smallness” Jesus is pointing to is an unwillingness to really come to God for healing. Anyone truly connected to God and his purposes can, quite literally, move a mountain. Not that God would want that. And I guess that’s part of the equation too.
The people in Matthew 17 simply wanted what snake oil salesmen promise – instant results. But Jesus says, “But this kind never comes out but by prayer and fasting,” and that takes time and effort.
We cannot claim to know the ways of God. We are creature. He is Creator. But Jonas was right. It is easy to spot the genuine article. Jesus is the genuine article. And you can trust him, and there’s nothing wrong with the “size” of your faith. But trusting him means walking past all the hucksters on the stage and keeping your gaze fixed on the eyes of Jesus. And that makes all the difference in the world.