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They all agree that the boy was possessed by a demon, but Matthew says he was epileptic, and that he oft fell into the fire and into the water. This has given occasion to the rationalists to say that the disease of the boy was merely epilepsy, arising from natural causes.
The most accurate historian of the event is St. Mark, who clearly declares that the child had a dunib spirit, and that this demon oft-times cast the child into the fire and into the water to destroy him.
Mark also records that at Jesus' question the father of the child testified that the child had been possessed from his infancy by the demon. Jesus needed not to ask this question for his own information, but the answer it elicited from the father illustrates more fully the reality of the demoniacal obsession, and the magnitude of the miracle. Hence, we conclude that this boy had been mute since his infancy; that when under a certain peculiar influence of the demon, he manifested certain effects common to epileptics. He fell down suddenly, foamed at the mouth, and writhed in terrible contortions. From the fact that the physical effects of the demoniacal possession were similar to those observed in epilepsy, St. Matthew is justified in calling him an epileptic. It was epilepsy, resulting from demoniacal possession.
There was no doubt in the minds of all concerning the cause of the boy's malady. The father openly declared that the demon often rent the boy and cast him into the fire and into the water. Mark's account is far more accurate. Mark is the interpreter of St. Peter, and the events of the Transfiguration and that which followed it were deeply impressed on Peter's mind. The falling of the boy into the fire and into the water, was not the mere falling down of one in an epileptic fit. It was Satan's effort to destroy the boy.
Knabenbauer believes that Satan did not wish to destroy the boy's life. He believes that Satan wished rather to continue in the boy's body as a domicile on earth, and that it was to his interest that the boy should live.
This seems improbable. All the purposes of Satan are evil.
He is essentially bent on evil to man; he came into this boy to do evil to him, all the evil that he could, and he longed to cast him into the fire or water to kill him, because it was the supreme temporal evil. We can not see Satan's necessity of a domicile in the demonized boy's body.
We learn from St. Luke that the boy was the only son of the father; this was an additional reason why the Lord should show mercy.
The nine Apostles must have been sorely perplexed. The scribes were there watching their movements. The Apostles had tried to expel the demon, and had failed. From their failure the scribes took occasion to decry them and their Master. The whole people witnessed the failure of the Apostles; it was a critical moment when Jesus came up.
And Jesus looking over the scene, and understanding the real condition of things, cried out: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you?” This cry expressed the Saviour's sorrow at the unbelief of the world. The world's unbelief chilled him, made him sorrowful. The words place before us another mystery in the life of the Son of God, in that life where the human and the divine are mingled, yet are ever distinct. The words tell us that the lack of faith of the generations of men made their society so uncongenial to the Son of God that the natural propensity of his human nature was to wish to be away from them.
How natural this is! Any one that aspires to high and good things knows how trying it is to be placed with those whose ways are low, coarse, and sinful.
The Saviour's words were spoken in general to the assembly. They were to be applied to every several one in the measure that unbelief was in his heart. Certainly there was much unbelief evidenced in the event. The Apostles had failed to expel the demon because of their little faith. The scribes mocked and blasphemed at their failure, and the multitude looked on in cold skepticism.
The world's greatest sin is unbelief. God speaks, and his words never penetrate to human hearts because of unbelief. God thunders forth from Heaven that he is angry with the sinner; and the sinner goes on his way heedlessly because of unbelief. God announces to the children of men the grand promises of life, and of happiness in Heaven, and man is not moved thereby, because of unbelief. Unbelief makes a man a stranger to God.
In calling the generation perverse, Jesus simply meant that the hearts of these men were strongly inclined to evil. This is true in general; it was especially true of the Israel of Christ's day. The world has always been full of falsehood and wickedness. The false and wicked ways of the world become so usual to us that they do not shock us. We are conformed to them without perceiving it. To break away from them and follow something better would necessitate a departure from the ordinary methods of men. We should have to "go it alone." It is easier to do as the rest do, and go with the crowd. It is a difficult achievement to sanctify one's self in this selfish, sinful world.
Jesus bids them bring the demonized boy to him. And as the boy was yet a coming, the demoniacal fit came on him with great intensity. He fell down, and foamed at the mouth and was mightily convulsed. At the presence of Jesus the demon within the boy was driven into a wild fury, and exerted himself to do the greatest injury to his subject. Jesus permits this, for it will augment the evidential value of the miracle.
While the boy is rolling on the ground in a paroxysm, Jesus approaches and asks how long it is since the malady had come upon him. And the poor father answers: “From a child." It was no passing infirmity, but a chronic, lifelong malady. The spectacle of the writhing form of the boy moves the father again to petition Jesus: “If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us. The form of expression of the petition certainly does not reveal much faith. The hypothetical sentence shows that the man was by no means certain that help could come from Jesus. The TTLOTEÜoal of the twenty-third verse of Mark's text seems to have been inserted to get over a difficulty. The best authorities omit it. It was inserted to obviate the seeming anacoluthon in Christ's response. It seems that the Saviour's words are rendered more forcible by its omission. The man had revealed a lack of faith in the hypothetical form of his petition. By his words the father of the child had placed an element of uncertainty in the Saviour's power. He had said in effect: “I know not whether or not thou art able to heal my son, but if thou art able, have mercy on us. By his answer, Jesus declares that the uncertainty is not in his divine power, but in the disposition of the man himself. It was equivalent to saying: “It is not whether I can, but whether you can. The uncertainty is with you; the certainty with me.
Of course, the TTLOTEWO AL is implied in the Saviour's words, but the form of expression is rendered more forcible and graceful by its omission.
Jesus tells the man that all things are possible to him who believeth. The words of Jesus inspired confidence in the father of the demonized boy. The father throws his whole being into one act of faith, and cries out: “I believe; help thou my unbelief." We can not tell what was the exact internal disposition of the man, but certainly his words express a splendid profession of faith. The man evidently wished to believe, strove to believe, and recognized the source of strength in believing. Faith comes from God, is God's best gift. The mightiest efforts of created minds will not produce faith in the heart. In seeking the gift of faith a humble prayer for light is better than a thousand years of philosophical speculation. Faith comes to the humble untaught peasant of the fields, while the readers of the heavens are denied it.
There is great wisdom and great honesty in the clause, “help thou my unbelief.” The best that we do in believing and in doing comes far short of perfection. Hence it is honest to acknowledge our imperfection, and to ask help of the only source whence help can come. The spirit of that man's prayer should be forever in our hearts; its expression should often be on our lips.
Whenever the temptation of doubt assails a man, he can find no better words to express his need, and to ask for help than these words. They are the words of a man who knows himself, of one who is deeply conscious of the nature of faith.
There is no paradox in acknowledging one's unbelief, even in the act of believing. Rarely ever is a man found who believes with an absolutely perfect faith; and therefore that which is lacking from perfection is expressed by the man in the Gospel as unbelief. Hence, while we believe with all our
strength, we should acknowledge the defect in our faith, and ask for divine grace to believe more. It is good, when in contemplation of some great mystery like the Eucharist, or the eternity of hell, to employ this formula of profession of faith.
By his sublime profession of faith the man had fulfilled the condition demanded by Jesus, and therefore straightway Jesus directly addressing the demon, bade him come out of the boy, and enter no more into him. The cure was to be a lasting one; the demon could never more enter into the boy.
At the words of Jesus, the demon comes out of the boy, but in his rage he tears him so that when the fit is over, the greater part of those present believe the boy dead.
But Jesus takes him by the hand, and raises him up, and the boy is cured, and Jesus gives him to his father. Jesus permitted Satan to exercise his malign power to the utmost in leaving the boy. It contributed to impress on the multitude that an effect had been wrought that had required the power of God.
St. Mark tells us that the demon uttered cries as he left the body of the boy. Inasmuch as the boy was deaf and dumb, we can not believe that these cries were articulate speech. In fact, Luke gives us the father's testimony that the boy was wont to cry out when the demon seized him. Hence, we believe that these cries were the inarticulate shrieks of a mute.
St. Mark records another detail that throws a light on the Saviour's character. In the twenty-fifth verse, St. Mark declares that Jesus hastened to drive out the demon before a crowd assembled. He thus hastened to avoid the admiration of the crowd. He worked his miracles before men, that men might believe in him, and believing have life in his name; but as much as was possible he avoided the praise and admiration of men.
The healing of the demoniac was a crushing defeat for the scribes. They had rejoiced much at the failure of the Apostles, and had sought thence to discredit the whole work of the Messiah. But now there is nothing left for them but to slink away and wait for other opportunities to lay plots against the Son of God.