It’s one of the most curious lines that Jesus utters. In response to the disciples’ inquiry as to why they could not cast an evil spirit from a boy, Jesus responds, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from hence to yonder place,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” (Mt 17:20).
What does Jesus mean here? Does He mean mountain, literally? Can faith really work physical miracles?
Many modern Scripture scholars, laden with rationalistic methods, see Jesus’ words as a quaint metaphor: The disciples have “little faith” because they do not trust Jesus sufficiently. If they did really trust Him, even with a mustard seed size faith, they could do “great things”—with “moving mountains” their figurative aspiration. How nice.
But if we turn to the Church Fathers, we find more lively interpretations that speak to the heart rather than to rationalist theory. In the third century, Origen (c. 185-c. 253), the first great biblical interpreter, wrote:
The mountains here spoken of, in my opinion, are the hostile powers that have their being in a flood of great wickedness, such as are settled down…in some souls of various people…. Then [a man with total faith] will say to this mountain—I mean in this case the deaf and dumb spirit in him who is said to be epileptic—‘Move from here to another place.’ It will move. This means it will move from the suffering person to the abyss.
Origen claims, then, that with total faith, with total trust in the Lord, we can drive evil spirits—the “mountains” to which Jesus was referring—out of people. That is, by faith we participate in the mission of salvation wrought by Christ. The first step on the road to salvation is the rejection of evil, a fact conveyed by the rite for renewing our baptismal promises: first we renounce Satan, then we profess belief in God.
As disciples, we participate in Christ’s work of driving out evil spirits to this very day. In some cases, we may well be called to combat real evil spirits with prayer, fasting, and the help of priests and bishops. More often we must confront evil spirits in their societal manifestations: the calumniation of God, the banishment of God from the public square, the rejection of God’s moral law, the false belief that worship of God is not necessary. If we successfully evangelize someone, if we bring someone into the Church, or back into the Church, from some place outside of her, we will have driven an evil spirit out of that person and pushed it into the abyss.
All we need is faith the size of a mustard seed. Then we are on our way as laborers in the harvest that, though plentiful, is ridden with weeds that must be plucked out by their roots.
Origen’s interpretation of the mountain as an evil spirit meshes with Jesus’ own miracles, which mostly involved healing countless individuals of physical ailments and demonic possession. Only on a few occasions did His miracles affect material objects and the natural order: when He multiplied the loaves, when He rebuked the winds, when He cursed the fig tree, when He walked on water.
Yet all of these were oriented to a spiritual end: increasing the faith that His disciples had in Him. Jesus never tampered with nature to “show off” His divine power. He did not lift giant boulders to show His strength, nor wrestle with wild animals, nor play games with fire and water, nor did He make a bird out of clay, as depicted in the Protoevangelium of Thomas, a second-century gnostic text.
For this reason, St. Jerome, while agreeing with Origen in his interpretation of this passage, goes a step further:
Those who claim that the apostles and all believers do not even have a little faith because it has not moved any mountains must be opposed. For the moving of the mountain from one place to another does not offer much benefit and is an empty show sought in signs when compared to the advantage all get from the transferring of that mountain said by the prophet Zechariah to destroy the whole land.
Jerome here refers to the Lord’s promise, through Zechariah, that the mountain before Zerubbabel will become a plain “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech 4:6).
That is, in telling us that our faith can move mountains, Jesus was not asking us to put on “an empty show.” Certainly men moving mountains would draw attention away from where it ought to be: on God. He was encouraging and exhorting us to do what the disciples originally had set out to do but failed for their lack of faith: expel the evil spirit from a man.
God, in history, has worked miracles in nature through His saints, yet the majority of documented miracles are physical healings. These follow the pattern of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic: the physical healing is oriented to spiritual healing. God’s miracles are never for show, but for salvation.
In their interpretation of mountains as evil spirits, then, Origen and Jerome help us see the nature of faith more clearly. Faith is not an exercise in raw power, as would be the case in physically lifting a mountain. Rather they teach us that faith is the means through which we enter into God’s salvation, and bringing that salvation to others in danger is an essential component of this faith.
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The Fatima seer children had faith great enough to move the sun. The sun is greatly larger than a mountain. Had the Fatima seer children not had faith, the sun would not have moved.
Miracle of the Sun
I figured someone would mention Fatima. Yes, the miracle of the sun was a natural one. But it did not happen at the command of the children or any other human being. It happened by God’s power and God’s initiative to inspire faith.
The way God and Lucy worked the ‘Miracle of the Sun’, looks very similar to the way Jesus, and the Apostles, with and through God the Father, worked miracles on earth in Jesus’ day.
The Dance of the Sun
(after the crowd sees the Blessed Mother ascending into the sky in a cloud, and while Lucy is still in a state of ecstasy)
“Then, opening Her hands (Lucy relates), Our Lady made them reflect on the sun, and as She ascended, the reflection of Her own light continued to be projected on the sun itself.
That is the reason why I cried out to the people to look at the sun. My aim was not to call their attention to the sun, because I was not even aware of their presence. I was moved to do so under the guidance of an inner impulse.
It was at this precise moment that the crowd could contemplate the extraordinary spectacle of the “dance of the sun”.”
Quoted from The Whole Truth About Fatima, Science and the Facts. By Frere Michel de la Sainte Trinite of the little Brothers of the Sacred Heart
This was Jesus’ answer: “I solemnly assure you, the Son cannot do anything by himself — he can do only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and everything the Father does he shows him.”
Acts of the Apostles 2:22
“Men of Israel, listen to me! Jesus the Nazorean was a man whom God sent to you with miracles, wonders, and signs as his credentials. These God worked through him in your midst, as you well know.”
Acts of the Apostles 10:37
“I take it you know what has been reported all over Judea about Jesus of Nazareth, beginning in Galilee with the baptism John preached; of the way God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good works and healing all who were in the grip of the devil, and God was with him.”
Acts of the Apostles 5:12 Signs and Wonders of the Apostles.
Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles. They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
He did not give up, thankfully, teaching us that lesson until the end.
A question often pondered. Even if I could, I repeat to myself Hilary Clinton’s sage remark, What difference does it make? Will I change anything? Although like Moses following God’s instructions, who told Aaron that he was told by God for him, Aaron, to cast his staff on the ground to convince Pharaoh he was God’s [Moses his proxy] prophet. Aaron did as told, the staff became a serpent. Pharaoh’s magicians did the same. Despite the magicians’ serpents becoming dinner for Aaron’s serpent, they did exactly the same.
Apparently, an exhibition of power doesn’t necessarily have results. Bonagura and Origen are not entirely off track. Mountains of evil. Indeed today there are such mountains. The prophet Jeremiah and healings and so forth all make good sense. Added, it’s the general consensus of worldwide opinion, that we can achieve the seeming impossible with a living faith.
Perhaps, then, with prayer and good will we can miraculously convince the Ultramontanists among us to stop clamoring and move further to the center.