"Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is very ill I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him."
- Matthew 17:15-16
Heart-wrenching stories emerging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina intertwine with memories of similar tales following our nation's greatest national tragedy four years ago, and we wonder: Why do some rescue attempts succeed and others fail? And whom do we credit - or blame - for the outcome: man or God?
The following incident from the Bible may provide some insight into the perennial question: In matters of life and death, how much depends on us, and how much responsibility belongs to God?
Jesus had taken Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain, and the other disciples were fending off a crowd of invalids seeking healing.
"Did you ever see so many people, Thomas? Think we should send them home?"
"No, Philip, let's help as many as we can, and persuade the rest to come back when Jesus returns. Why did he take Peter and John? They'd know what to do."
"Why do we need them? We can handle this."
"You sure, Matthew?"
"Can't you believe anything I say, Thomas?" And right then confident Matthew began barking orders to the crowd.
"OK, all you lame people, get someone to help you over there by that pile of rocks. Bart, Simon, you take charge. And if you're blind, work your way over to the left until you come to a stone wall. Will someone please lead the deaf back to that grassy slope?"
"You forgot the children."
"We don't have time for the children today, Andrew."
"But this man's son is having seizures."
"Oh, leave him here; I'll take care of him."
After reassuring the crowd that someone would help them soon, Matthew turns his attention to the ailing child.
"Now," he asks the father, "how long has he had this problem?"
"Oh, sir, he was born this way. He harms himself and is a constant worry to his mother and me. We've come a long way and now Jesus isn't here. Can you help us?"
Matthew and the disciples gathered around the boy, placed their hands on his flailing head and, as they had seen Jesus do, demanded that the "evil spirit" depart from him.
Nothing happened. The wild eyes, the screams, a father's broken heart were the same as before. Matthew, exhausted, sank to the ground in despair.
"He's coming back! Matthew, Jesus is coming back!"
A humbler, far-less-in-charge Matthew had one question: "Master, why couldn't we do what you do?" Jesus said they should have prayed more. They shouldn't have tried to accomplish a divine task in human strength alone.
The story of "the powerless disciples" appears in three of the four Gospels, and to some degree in each of us. We care, love, and grope for new ways to heal the patient, regain the wayward child or lift up the distressed, but some of our evil spirits (diseases of the body or mind) are not cast out, either. And now, learning that Jesus responded to the disciples' failure with reproach instead of sympathy, we could become more discouraged.
But when comparing this incident with the rest of Scripture, we realize Jesus wasn't scolding the disciples at all. He was showing them a better way:
"Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me - for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30) Or, as hymn writer Fanny Crosby concludes in the first verse of Rescue The Perishing, Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save."
Someone has said that we cannot rescue all who suffer because recovery comes on the sufferer's timetable, as well as God's, but we can become a rest stop along the way. It also helps if we are "restful" first. Then, as St. Paul adds, "We will not be weary in well doing." (Galatians 6:9)
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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