Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Silent no more

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The healing of the epileptic boy raises some questions as to how we are to read the various healing miracles of Jesus. Matthew’s version that we read today in the Liturgy includes a word that is full of superstitious overtones: σεληνιάζεται. The English equivalent is ‘moonstruck’. Both in Greek and in English, the meaning is to say someone is acting crazy under the influence of the moon! Growing up in Greece I often heard this word being used in everyday language to describe people who were acting strange. And it was not uncommon for someone to be called σεληνιασμένος or be angrily addressed as “βρέ σεληνιασμένε!”

The father says his boy σεληνιάζεται. In English it’s usually translated to mean the boy is epileptic. Certainly that was the medical condition of the boy. But Matthew’s use of σεληνιάζεται connects his narrative to superstitious notions. Mark’s version of this healing avoids the word  σεληνιάζεται, but attributes the boy’s condition to a demon. Jesus performs an exorcism in all versions of this incident. And yet, the symptoms that Mark describes are easily diagnosed as severe epileptic seizures. So we have this problem of a medical condition being treated as demon possession and labeled by a word straight out of superstition. Not only that, but how literally are we to take Jesus’ words that if we have some faith we could tell a mountain to move and it will move? Even he never told a mountain to move! You want to give it a try?

Clearly Jesus was exaggerating, as he often did, in order to provoke some thought or reaction. And we do not know whether Jesus saw this boy’s condition as demon possession or connected to the moon’s phases. I like to think that all that talk of moon and demon were invented by the Gospel writers. But it all raises the question I started with: How should we read the miracle stories of the Gospels? Are they just miracle stories to be taken at face value, or are there further meanings and messages that can speak to us in our own situations? I believe there are such meanings and messages in all the miracle stories and healings, including the healing of the epileptic boy.

Mark tells the story of this healing in much greater detail than either Matthew or Luke. Two moments in Mark’s version warrant my attention today. (1) When Jesus asked the father how long his boy had been like this, the father answered, “From childhood.” (2) When Jesus challenged the father’s faith, the father cried out those famous words that still ring in our ears 2,000 years later: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The father cried out for himself, for his own lack of faith! The miracle story is about faith. Matthew focuses on the faith of the disciples who could not cure the boy. Mark focuses on the faith of the boy’s father! Much more important in my opinion, because the faith of the father is also our faith – or lack of faith.

Faith is not just a personal thing. The father’s faith – or lack of it – contributed to the power of the spirit that tormented his son. From childhood, this boy had been controlled by a spirit that silenced him. From childhood, the boy lived in an environment that kept him silent. The true demons, the true powers that Jesus confronts are those that make us despair that real change,real spiritual growth,  real transformation, are impossible. It’s not by accident that this healing takes place immediately after the transfiguration of Christ.

Raphael's painting of the Transfiguration includes the episode of the epileptic boy underneath. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, failed attempts are made to heal the boy down below. (click to enlarge)

Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration includes the episode of the epileptic boy in the bottom half. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, failed attempts are made to heal the boy down below. (click to enlarge)

Back in the 1960s and 70s it was common to hear about the “silent majority.” Or, perhaps it’s more correct to say, the silenced majority. We are the silenced majority when we don’t have enough faith in the power of the transfiguration, which is the power to fill our lives and our planet with the holiness and light of Christ. We are the silenced majority when we believe that the forces for evil are just too strong for anyone to conquer. That was the father’s problem. And Jesus gave him voice for the first time: “I believe, help my unbelief!” That was the turning point. And it’s the turning point for every one of us too.

Be silent no more. We believe; Lord, help our unbelief!

One thought on “Silent no more

  1. I like your concentration on the silencing. There are political implications to that interpretation. I’ve copied a comment from an old blog of my own on this passage:

    “Jesus’ believed his life was shared with God and with God’s creatures. Mark has told the story of the transfiguration in which the glory of that life has for a moment been evident to his inner circle of disciples. But it is precisely the glory of the shared life of God. This is shown again in the incident which follows the transfiguration, the healing of the epileptic boy. For Jesus, faith is trust in the sharing of God’s life. His outburst about faithlessness is aimed equally at the father and his disciples. The father comes demanding life for his boy, not offering to help share that life with others, while the disciples have committed themselves to sharing it but don’t really trust it themselves. Jesus insists that the shared life cannot just be a gift. He corrects the father’s “if you are able” with his own, “no, if YOU are able!” The father himself must trust the reality of God’s sharing. Jesus demand draws from the father the terrible and honest cry, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Jesus’ skill as a healer provides that help. This is a model of healing. The sick person deserves to be part of a community where trust in the shared life of God is real and people bear one another’s burdens. Then the skilled healers can do their job.”

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