After His transfiguration, Yeshua and the few disciples He had taken with Him returned to the village to meet those He had left behind. The latter had attempted and failed to exorcise a demon. After the Master succeeded in casting it out, the following conversation ensued:
His disciples began questioning Him privately, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:28-29)
The narratives of Matthew and Mark offer three apparent reasons for the disciples’ failure to cast out the demon:
- Lack of faith: “Because of the littleness of your faith.” (Matthew 17:20)
- Lack of prayer: “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:29)
- Lack of prayer and fasting: “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29 [in some manuscripts of Mark])
These explanations seem to contradict. Did the disciples fail because of lack of faith or because of lack of preparation? Matthew 17:20 seems to explain that the disciples failed to exorcise the demon because of their inadequate faith. This is a difficulty. On the contrary, Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 claim that they failed because they faced a more resilient caliber of demon than the spirits they had previously encountered. Only an exorcist adequately prepared with a period of prayer and fasting could succeed against that particular type of demon—something the disciples did not know, nor could the Master fault them for their ignorance of demonology.
Yeshua’s next statement supports this second interpretation: “For truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matthew 17:20) Even the smallest amount of faith would have been enough; lack of faith was certainly not the issue.
Surely, between the nine disciples who attempted the exorcism, they had conjured up the requisite mustard-seed-sized amount of faith. So what does Yeshua mean when He says, “because of the littleness of your faith”? It is possible that He is asking a rhetorical question. In that case, the conversation should be understood as follows:
Then the disciples came to Yeshua privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” And He said to them, “[Do you think you failed] because of the littleness of your faith? For amen I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:19-21)
The disciples believed their lack of faith was responsible for their failure, but the Master dismissed those fears, assuring them that any amount of faith is adequate to accomplish even greater miracles. They had failed because this particular demon required additional preparation to exorcise. He assured His disciples that they did not need to conjure up a blind faith that dispelled every shred of doubt or uncertainty. God’s power is not limited by human doubt. Success in the spiritual realm does not depend upon simply believing hard enough. Even faith as small as the size of a mustard seed was adequate to move a mountain.
The sages compared things to a mustard seed when describing something inconsequentially small. We might say, “Faith as small as a molecule.” The term “uprooting mountains” also occurs in rabbinic literature as hyperbole; it’s an idiom for accomplishing the near-impossible. For example, consider the following two instances where the Talmud employs the same idiom to speak of winning a difficult argument:
Rabbah was an uprooter of mountains because he was so exceptionally skilled in argumentation. (Talmud)
One who saw Resh Lakish debating in the House of Study would think that he was uprooting mountains and grinding them against each other! (Talmud)
Another example of the idiom actually is literal. When discussing why the sages allowed Herod the Great to go ahead with his plans for rebuilding the Temple (which involved doubling the size of the Temple Mount), they explained, “If a king says, ‘I will uproot mountains!’ he will uproot them and not go back on his word” (Talmud).
In one talmudic story, a rabbi engaged in a difficult argument with his colleagues called upon Heaven to prove his case by means of uprooting a tree:
On that day Rabbi Eliezer advanced every conceivable proof for his argument, but his colleagues did not accept them. So he said to them, “If my legal interpretation is correct, let this carob tree prove it!” Immediately the carob tree was uprooted [and moved] one hundred cubits from where it had been planted. Others claim it was four hundred cubits.” The rabbis replied, “You cannot bring proof from a carob tree.” (Talmud)
Rabbi Yeshua used a similar example to encourage His disciples in the power of faith. When the disciples said, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5), He replied, “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” (Luke 17:6). He did not say that His disciples lacked faith the size of a mustard seed; He instead encouraged them that the faith they already had was sufficient for the task, providing God willed it. “Nothing will be impossible to you” (Matthew 17:20), He said, reminding them of the passage in the Torah that asks, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14).
When the Master spoke of faith as small as a mustard seed, He did not mean that faith will always move a mountain or consistently uproot a carob tree. Instead, He meant to contrast the insufficiency of man’s faith against the sufficiency of God’s power. The small faith inside a person does not move the mountain; rather, the powerful God in whom the person places faith moves the mountain. God is not a genie granting wishes.