One day Jesus’ disciples were practicing what Jesus had been teaching them. The incident involved a young boy who was demonically self-destructive and a worried father. The disciples said the words to expel the demon, just like they’d seen Jesus do, but nothing worked. The worried father ran to find Jesus and implored Him to come and heal his son. Jesus responds with some harsh words concerning unbelief and twisted faith. “And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matthew 17:17, NASB95) Jesus then calls the boy Himself, He rebukes the demon and heals the son. At sometime after the event, the disciples ask Jesus about their failure, “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; 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 17:19–20, NASB95) What is left unsaid is how the disciples reacted but we do have a clue?
Jesus harsh words to an “unbelieving and perverted generation” seem out of place. I’m sure that it is not the reaction the boy’s father anticipated. Neither are we sure who they are targeted at. Is Jesus rebuking the father of the boy, the disciples, or an entire generation?
Looking at Israel of that day it would seem that they had finally gotten their act together. The idol worship that plagued and perverted their faith since leaving Egypt had been purged by exile. Temple worship was in full vigor. Synagogue communities had taken shape in order to encourage faithfulness when away from the temple. Although occupied by Rome they were to a large degree able to self-govern according to the law of Moses. It would seem that Israel had finally gotten its faith in order. Returning to the question it would seem that Jesus is rebuking all of the above; the disciples, the father, and the entire generation. After all, the disciples and the father are products of their generation. We would be hard pressed to see the disciples as faithless. And the father had to have some degree of faith in order to bring the boy to the disciples in the first place.
Here’s my take. Their faith was misplaced and incomplete which is why Jesus called it perverted; a twisted imitation of the genuine article. Their faith was not in God but in a formula, if I do the right things, if I completely follow every jot and tittle of the law, if I say the right words at the right time, then God will respond. We see this in the Seven Sons of Sceva as they tried to perform exorcism like Paul – the results were not pretty (Acts 19:13-16). The disciples, the father, and the entire generation had placed their faith in their own actions and not in God. But there was one other problem, one other missing part to their faith.
I believe that the missing ingredient to their faith was love. Consider Paul’s instruction to the Galatians, “For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 5:6, NLT) The mountain only moves when faith is expressing itself in love. Love is so important that without it nothing else matters, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2, NASB95) Faith does not, cannot, stand alone; it must work through love to be effective.
Why do our prayers seem to go unanswered? Why does it seem that our faith couldn’t move an ant hill let alone a mountain? Perhaps we have misplaced our faith in formulas, in law, in ourselves, or in trying to earn God’s favor. Perhaps we are praying selfishly instead of out of love for God and the others in our life. Having placed our faith in Jesus Christ the most important priority is not following a checklist of do’s and don’ts. Obedience comes easy when love is the priority but fear enslaves when law holds sway. Instead, having placed our faith in Jesus Christ what matters most is faith expressing itself through love in every moment, during every storm, in the hour of triumph, and in the agony of despair because love is faith in action.