Prayer, Fasting, and the Good Life: On the 10th Sunday After Pentecost

One of the many problems of popular, easy Christianity is that it makes us spiritually weak. If the faith is basically about helping us get what we want, then we will always serve ourselves and become addicted to self-centered desires. We will become so enslaved to our bellies, the love of money, popularity, and the endless pursuit of happiness that we will be just like the disciples: powerless against the forces of evil and corruption in our own lives.
Priest Philip LeMasters | 17 August 2014
Matthew 17:14-23 And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water.So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up. And they were exceedingly sorrowful.

It’s easy to become annoyed by some of the distortions of Christianity that are so common in our culture.  Some preach on television and elsewhere that truly faithful Christians will become rich and have no problems.  Many seem to assume that following Jesus Christ is just a little religious icing on the cake of worldly comfort, part of an easy way to a happy marriage, a model family, perfect health, and whatever else we may want out of life.  It’s as though the Son of God came to make us really successful by conventional standards.

The irony is that even a quick look at the life of Jesus Christ, his Mother Mary the Theotokos, or apostles such as St. Paul shows how foolish such teachings are.  None of them lived what any mainstream culture thinks of as a happy or successful life.  Now don’t get me wrong:  they obviously lived the best and holiest of lives; they are models for us in how to live and to die.  But they put the Kingdom of God first and refused to put even their own happiness before God’s will and the humble service of others.  They all suffered greatly, but thereby participated in joy and peace that are not of this world.

The Son of God lowered Himself in the Incarnation, becoming one of us and even enduring death and descent to Hades in order to conquer them and bring us into His eternal life.  He was rejected by the leaders of His own people and brutally executed by the Roman authorities.  Mary the Theotokos accepted a scandalous pregnancy as the Lord’s virgin mother and saw her Son murdered by those He came to save.  St. Paul endured hardships of all kinds, beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom for Christ.  These were not wealthy people; their lives didn’t follow conventional patterns; they weren’t in favor with the religious and political authorities of their land.   In some ways, there were outsiders and outcasts. But it was precisely through their difficult struggles and their faithful ministries that salvation has come to the world and we have inherited the blessings of life eternal.

That’s an important truth to keep in mind when we hear the heart-broken father of the epileptic boy cry out to the Lord for healing for his son.  The poor man had probably done everything he knew for his son without success, even asking the disciples to cure him. They had failed to do so, however, because of their unbelief, which was shown by their lack of attention to prayer and fasting.  In other words, they lacked the spiritual strength to overcome evil, probably because they assumed that following Christ was an easy path to a privileged life.  After all, most Jews expected the Messiah to be a great king and military ruler who would presumably reward those who served Him.    In their hopes for that kind of savior, the disciples were part of a “faithless and perverse” generation that trusted in and served itself, rather than in the one true God.

The epileptic boy was not healed because his father was wealthy, powerful, or popular—or because Jesus Christ was on His way to becoming an earthly king.  Instead, the boy’s father had true faith, trust and humility before the Lord, kneeling down before him and asking for mercy from the bottom of his heart.  He lowered himself before Christ, putting himself in the humble place of one who could receive the blessing of the most humble One of all.

Unfortunately, some in the church of Corinth were nothing like that father; they were so full of pride that St. Paul had to set them straight on what it meant to serve Jesus Christ.  He wrote that true apostles lived “as men condemned to death,” as fools who are weak, dishonored, homeless, and treated as the filth of the world.   Well, you can’t get much lower than that or much further away from the lie that Christianity should be a means to wealth, success, and what the world calls happiness.   And the words used by St. Paul remind us of how the Lord spoke of the “least of these,” identifying Himself with the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner—those at the very bottom of any society.

The application to our lives is clear.  Instead of following today’s popular false prophets who worship money, power, and other forms of self-indulgence, we should follow the advice of the Lord Himself to the disciples on the centrality of faith, prayer, and fasting.  Instead of believing that success in any earthly kingdom or culture is the highest good, we must entrust our lives only to the One who has conquered death.  Instead of being constantly distracted by television, the internet, video games, work, sports, the demands of a busy schedule, or other earthly cares, we must carve out at least some time every day for quiet contemplation and spiritual communion with the Lord. Instead of satisfying every desire and wallowing in unrestrained indulgence and consumption, we must learn to say no to our addiction to pleasure through appropriate forms of fasting and self-denial on a regular basis.  Instead of making our faith a way to get what we want and gain the praise of others, we must learn the essential place of humility in the Christian life.  For it is only when we stop focusing on ourselves—our strengths, our virtues, our abilities, as well as our failures and weaknesses—that we will be able to kneel before Christ like that father who was at the end of his rope and  open ourselves  to the mercy and healing of the Lord.

One of the many problems of popular, easy Christianity is that it makes us spiritually weak.  If the faith is basically about helping us get what we want, then we will always serve ourselves and become addicted to self-centered desires.  We will become so enslaved to our bellies, the love of money, popularity, and the endless pursuit of happiness that we will be just like the disciples:  powerless against the forces of evil and corruption in our own lives.  If we serve and please only ourselves, we will become so self-focused and self-centered that we will find it impossible to cultivate the humility required to serve God and our neighbor.  We will become so addicted to our desires that we will lack the ability to say no to ourselves for any reason, which is ultimately a recipe for nothing but misery.

Well, that’s certainly no way to live the Christian life; better to look to Christ who came not to be served, but to serve, and who gained strength for the many challenges of His ministry by intensive prayer and fasting.  The Theotokos grew up in the Temple and was sustained throughout her life by these spiritual disciplines, as was St. Paul.  Our Savior and His Saints call us to follow them in humility, obedience, and self-denial.  Yes, there is hard work involved, but should that really be surprising?  Physical rehab after an injury requires discipline and the same is true of making progress in any line of work or in maintaining healthy relationships within a family or marriage. And if we are in the process of dying to self so that we may become holy and share in eternal life, should we be surprised that the struggle is even greater?

The good news is that Christ is with us in that struggle.  He endured the agony of the cross for us, and we will grow in faith by bearing our crosses patiently, by accepting the difficulty of prayer, fasting, selfless service, and all the other disciplines of the Christian life.  No, they will never make us rich and famous, but they are tools for helping us become like the father of the epileptic boy who, in his humble faith, received the mercy of Christ.  Then we will learn in our own lives that what looks like weakness by worldly standards is actually the greatest strength of all.

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