“In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:20-26, NIV
As I have slowly trolled the waters of the Gospel of Mark for the last year and a half, I've been increasingly struck by the fact that those closest to Jesus were frequently baffled and perplexed by him. He said and did remarkable things. He incensed religious authorities, defied social conventions, even persuaded his family to think he had lost his marbles. Just when you think he will do one thing, he does another. Early in the Gospel he spent a day and a night praying for the sick and demonized (Mark 1:29-34). The next morning when the healing lines begin to fill up even before the sun is up, he informs the disciples it's time to go (v. 38). Late in the Gospel he enters Jerusalem with triumphal flair (11:1-10). There is a feeling that history is about to be made, a loud pronouncement given, some powerful demonstration of God's power, only for him to simply look all around the Temple complex and then leave the city “since it was already late” (v. 11). He never does what you expect him to do nor say what you thought he would say.
The way Peter, Mark's witness, remembers it, the day that Jesus prophetically caused a dust-up in the Temple courts began with their small entourage coming upon a fig tree fully leafed out and Jesus checking its branches for figs. He was hungry and wanted something to eat but since figs weren't yet in season there was none to be found. It would be like one of us looking for apples in May when we know that they don't come until August or September. And yet, he pronounces a curse on it for being barren. Significantly, Mark tells us “his disciples heard him say it” (v. 14).
I'm struck by the juxtaposition of what seems the “petulant” Jesus the day before – cursing the fig tree and then moving with alacrity through the Temple courts right afterward disrupting the flow of commerce and traffic within it – and the meditative Jesus who calmly looks at the very tree he had cursed the day before and using it as a teaching point for faith. It is – or would seem to be – unsettling. Who is this guy? One day he has fire in his eyes, the next he seems to recline on a lotus leaf as he talks about faith and prayer. What gives?
As I frequently do, I walk through my Scripture studies in the company of others both contemporary and ancient. In all the sources I have consulted, there seems to be a general consensus that the cursing of the tree for what seems no apparent reason is the key to understanding what is really going on in the Temple when he is overturning tables. I follow that train of thought. But what I don't readily get is how he segues from cursing and cleansing as prophetic acts to how they become a basis for having faith in God.
|Okay, this is a bit silly but you get the point|
Today, three and a half decades later I don't agree with the hermeneutic my pastor used at the time but admittedly I struggle to find a better one. I'm pretty sure Jesus is not saying, “You're children of God. He gives you a blank check. Fill in whatever amount you wish and wait until your order is filled.” If that was so there would be, it seems to me, a lot more God-loving people living in higher rent districts and driving later-model cars. I get the fact that he is employing hyperbole at that specific moment to make a point: With God truly the sky is the limit so “have confidence in him.” As Peterson translates it:
“This mountain [that is, Mount Zion], for instance: Just say, ‘Go jump in the lake’—no shuffling or shilly-shallying—and it’s as good as done. That’s why I urge you to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large.” (v. 24, Msg).
|We cannot fathom the wonder it was|
I still don't follow Jesus' line of thought from cursed tree to having faith in God but perhaps the location where he delivers this teaching is part of the key to understanding what he's getting at. He says these things in the shadow of the Temple courts. Americans have no equivalent to how a good-hearted Jew felt about Jerusalem and the Temple mount in the days of Jesus. Maybe Roman Catholics do when they make their way to St. Peter's Square in Vatican City if they are fortunate enough to do so. But for we Protestants, the more schismatic part of the family of God, there is no commonly held revered “Center.” Lutherans point to Wittenburg where Luther pounded his 95 complaints upon the door. Methodists revere Aldersgate, Pentecostals (or, at least, some of them) hype up Azuza Street. But for a God-loving Jew Jerusalem was the place where heaven touches earth. David Garland says as much when he writes,
Most Jews regarded the temple as the place where prayer was particularly effective...A late rabbinic commentary on Psalm 91:7 reads: “When a man prays in Jerusalem, it is as though he prays before the throne of glory, for the gate of heaven is in Jerusalem, and a door is always open for the hearing of prayer, as it is said, 'This is the gate of heaven' (Gen 28:17).' ...By contrast, Jesus assures his disciples that the effectiveness of prayer has nothing to do with the temple or its sacrifices. When he dies on the cross, access to God is not closed off but opened up for all. His death creates a new house of prayer, a temple not made with hands, which will be without barriers or limitations (see John 2:18-22; 1 Cor 3:16-17; 12:27; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:20-22; 1 Pe 2:4-5). (The NIV Application Commentary: Mark by David Garland, p. 442)
Like so many other things Jesus said when he was with them, they wouldn't get the significance of this comment about having faith in God until much later. But clearly three decades later Peter remembered it and made sure Mark noted it for posterity. “By the end of the week,” says Jesus, “this Temple and all its doings will be irrelevant. It will be but a legacy of elder days and how you used to have to do things. From herein out, you will have access to your heavenly Father just as I do. Sacrifices will no longer be necessary. The liturgy of the Temple will be out-of-date. It's a brand new day so have confidence and faith in Him.”
And maybe this also points to why he is so incensed when he comes upon a tree that appears to be healthy and fruitful only to find it pretending to be so. The Temple was supposed to represent access to God and how he had provided a lamb for sacrifice for sin. Instead over the generations barnacles of pride, oppression and injustice had grown upon the hulk of the Temple mount. The very place that was supposed to represent liberation in reality now was about control and submission. I think that would push most of us over the emotional edge.
Thankfully, I don't have to travel to some sacred place for God to hear my prayer. I don't have to posture myself in a certain way or even pray a certain prayer in order to for my request to appear on the monitor of heaven. The only thing that is required is that as I pray (in my case) that my children honor him with the way they conduct their lives, that my son's 20-year-old car keep running or that he would be blessed with a better running one, that my daughter's foot be healed in its entirety, is that I ensure I am not holding out on anyone (v. 26). Otherwise, I'm going to put my confidence in the fact that God my Father hears me while I keep on asking away about “big” things and small.
...The power of prayer has subdued the strength of fire, bridled the rage of lions, silenced anarchy, extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, enlarged the gates of heaven, relieved diseases, averted frauds, rescued cities from destruction, stayed the sun in its course and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt. In sum, prayer has power to destroy whatever is at enmity with the good. I speak not of the prayer of the lips but of the prayer that ascends from the inmost recesses of the heart.
Chrysostom, 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople, from his homily, On the Incomprehensibility of God as noted in The Ancient Christian Commentary on Mark, p. 162