Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 17:14-27) transports me to some of the more regretful episodes of my high school years, when I was part of a group of guys who invested all of our creative energy into making life miserable for our teachers through pranks and mischief. One particular teacher, Mrs. Jacobs, who taught civics, had to bear the brunt of most of our un-civic behavior. She retired early and moved to Mexico after having me, Mark Wall, and Jeff Bowen two years in a row. Drawing magic marker boundaries of a state of nirvana on her map of the world, passing out candy cigarettes for everybody to “smoke,” and prepping everyone to burst out laughing when the clock struck a certain time were some of the milder pranks. I’ll leave out the more destructive (and self-destructive) behaviors. The one prank the passage reminded me of, though, is particularly uncivilized and shameful. Every great once in a while one of us would fall to the floor in the middle of a lecture, and fake a seizure. It was lunacy to the nth degree. We spent a lot of time in the assistant principal’s office.
Jesus’ disciples, unlike Mrs. Jacobs, had to deal with lunacy of a different kind, a boy who suffered with genuine seizures (the KJV actually calls it lunacy, while later translations call it epilepsy or simply seizures). Whatever the cause, the boy was prone to self-destructive behavior, throwing himself into the fire or into the water. The boy’s father came to the disciples for help, but they couldn’t do a thing with him. Jesus had no problem, though. He recognized the evil spirit, cast it out, and gave the boy the chance at a free and full life. He proceeded to inspire his followers with talk about faith that could move mountains, depress them with talk of his death, and impress them with one of the more random miracles of scripture – producing his tax money from the mouth of a fish. I can almost picture this last feat on one of Penn and Teller’s Las Vegas shows, with Jesus on stage, putting a small shekel in the mouth of a sardine, throwing it into a pool of clear water, then getting an audience member to come up and bait a hook on Zebco rod and reel, cast it into the pool, and voila! The audience member reels in a large St. Peter’s fish, reaches into the mouth and pulls out a large gold coin! How’d he do that?
When I read passages like this, I sometimes wonder where we are in the story. In the strange culture of American religion, I think we often play the part of the troubled boy. Our relationships and dialogues often seem marked by lunacy. For me, I am often “seized” by the seductive opportunity to engage in conversation with people on the extreme opposite end of theological and cultural divides, and I occasionally get burned, or feel like I’m about to drown in the sea of nonsense. While there’s a part of me that really believes in staying with these conversations, that it’s an important cross to bear in order to bear witness to a joyful grace that is welcoming and affirming of all kinds of people who are different from me, there’s another part that feels it is a precious waste of time at best and self-destructive at worst. Sometimes, when I’m removed from these conversations, I feel more like the disciples, observing the lunacy of the culture, but powerless to effect any healing or liberation. I long for the days when we can truly play the part of Jesus in the story, and have the faith to move mountains of obstinacy (our own as well as that of our sparring partners), to cast out destructive spirits, and to bring liberation to a world captive to craziness. Or at least pull some gold from the mouth of a rainbow trout and bring a little levity to all the hand-wringing over high taxes.
How about you? Where does this passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.