Coming down from the mountain, Jesus is immediately met with a coming-back-to-earth moment of reality. Having been elevated and transfigured (Matt. 17:1-13), he now is back to dealing with the day-to-day realities of life and with people in their weakness, sickness, with demonic tendencies and human frailty.
Life is often like this: after a beautiful moment in our quiet time with God, we must then face a screaming child or a bothersome boss. After an elevated and transfigured church worship service, we are then facing the dishes that need washing or the taxes that need filing. It is all too easy for us to think that God is sufficient for the “highs” but not for the “lows.” Here we discover that the power of God is revealed in the valleys, as much as on the mountaintops.
The father of the son who cannot be healed by the disciples approaches Jesus and asks for mercy (17:14-16). Jesus, with nothing more than a “rebuke” (see Matthew 8:26), deals with the demon and heals the boy (17:18). The generation, the type, that Jesus bemoans is a “faithless generation” and a “twisted generation” (17:17).
The disciples, having tried so hard to help this boy, come to Jesus and ask him what they did wrong (17:19). Jesus’ reply has perplexed many: “because of your little faith” (17:20). One reading of his answer is that they failed because they did not have “enough” faith. Their faith was not large enough, big enough; they doubted as they tried to heal the child. But Jesus himself seems to dispute this interpretation by immediately then saying that if their faith were as tiny as a mustard seed—a very small thing indeed—then they could move mountains (17:20).
“Mountain” here is neither literalistic nor metaphorical; indeed, if God wills, he can move mountains. We have just observed God incarnate still storms (8:26); why not move mountains, too? But nor is it to be taken literally, as if the mark of a mature and healthy Christian faith (even one with an amount of faith as small as a mustard seed) is that it goes around picking up a piece of the Rocky Mountains and resettles it somewhere else. If that were the case, there has never been a mature or healthy Christian faith, and it borders on a showy, magic view of Christianity which is counter to so much of what the Bible is intending overall.
No, Jesus is surely referring to the “mountain” from which he has just descended. His point is that the handoff that has taken place on the mountain, when Elijah and Moses talk to Jesus, and God announces (again) that Jesus is his beloved Son, is a mountain-moving moment. He is referring then in dramatic fashion to the experience of seeing Jesus in his glory and of grasping who he is. If we have this sort of faith—an emphasis on quality, not quantity, that the mustard seed illustration underscores—then we will see Jesus at work in this world powerfully.
The disciples still do not have a full grasp of who Jesus is, in other words, and that is the reason for their failure. So often that is true in our lives today, too. If we could but grasp the majesty of Jesus, the power of Jesus, the value of Jesus, then our sinful habits and addictions would fall away and be found powerless before us—like a man who looks at life differently when he stands at the foot of Mount Everest than by the small hillock at the bottom of his garden.
Jesus, then, to confirm this interpretation predicts his coming death. It is at this moment that he will be glorified, and it is about this death and resurrection that they are still “deeply distressed” (17:22-23).
Next, Peter is caught in a white lie, or at least a deceit (17:24-25)—he tells the tax collectors that they do pay the tax, when it becomes evident that they at least have not paid it yet. Perhaps he is thinking to himself of how they will pay the tax when the opportunity arises. At any rate Jesus uses this as a teaching moment. How often we miss such opportunities to shape the lives of our children or those we are called to disciple. Some lessons are better learned as we go through life, rather than around the classroom table or sitting under a pulpit.
Here there is a life lesson that Jesus wishes to teach Peter, and he uses this tax collecting as his opportunity. “The sons are free” (17:26), the point being that Peter, as son of the King (Jesus) is, in a sense, immune from the demands of this worldly allegiance. But yet, as Jesus elsewhere teaches and as Paul teaches, we Christians are to pay taxes; to give honor to those to whom it is right to honor (Romans 13:1-7); to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21). In order to show, though, that Jesus himself is beholden to no one, Jesus pays the tax through a miraculous intervention and a life lesson connected to Peter’s own fishing skill (17:27).
This is reality—taxes, sickness. And yet also here, in the valley as well as on the mountain, there is mountain-moving power available for us. If only we will put out trust, albeit mustard seed trust, in the person of Jesus and his death and resurrection.
To receive God Centered Bible devotionals directly in your inbox, sign up here.