On the following day, when they came from Bethany, [Jesus] was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
St. Mark 12:12-24
I really wish Jesus hadn’t said what he said in the last paragraph of the passage above. Or, at least I wish the gospel writer had given us something of the conversation that must have immediately followed this, so we could have a better sense of what Jesus might have had in mind in this rather enigmatic statement.
Could Jesus possibly have meant, when he used that word “whatever,” that if I asked for a luxury car or a condo in Switzerland, or for my friend to be healed of his terminal cancer, that God would certainly provide that, if only my faith were strong enough? If only I prayed my prayer just right, with all the right words? If only I thought more positively about God and what God can do? A casual reading certainly suggests this, and as a result, thousands of Christians down through time have either given up on God or beat up on themselves, thinking they simply did not have sufficient faith.
Such a shame, as I believe this passage can deeply enrich our prayer lives, but only if it is understood in the context of the whole of Jesus’ life and teachings. So I like to imagine that a conversation something like this might have followed Jesus’ words to his disciples that day.
Peter: Wow! That is really something, Rabbi. I love that kind of power! I’d love to zap some people the way you zapped that fig tree! And I’d love to move a few mountains in my life!
Jesus: But Peter, I “zapped” that fig tree to underscore what I just did in Jerusalem when I went through the temple and denounced the flagrant abuse of that holy space. My “zapping” of that fig tree was simply to show you God’s power when it comes in judgment on those who abuse their faith to enhance themselves and make life more difficult for others.
Peter: Oh! So you mean it wouldn’t work if I was just angry at my wife or at my friend John here and uttered a curse on them? Rats! But maybe just as well. I know I’m hot-tempered, and I’d probably feel so sorry for what I did the very next day. But I’d still be interested in just how I could muster enough faith to move some of the mountains in my life.
Jesus: Well, Peter, as to removing mountains, that takes a little more explaining. It’s true. Sometimes God does remove mountain-like obstacles in our lives. Sometimes God doesn’t. Sometimes God simply asks us to live with these obstacles and to grow an inner, mountain-solid strength as we struggle with them day after day after day. But there is one mountain–the Mount of Olives, visible just just over your shoulder, which God, in God’s time, is most definitely planning to move. I wonder if you might recall the passage from Zechariah where the prophet uses highly symbolic language and predicts that the Mount of Olives will be split in two at the time of God’s final coming to earth to rescue his people.
Peter: Well, I was never really good, Jesus, at remembering all the promises I was taught as a child, but I think I do remember that passage, as the image is so startling. Isn’t that the one where the prophet is talking about God’s coming judgment and God’s coming reign, a wonderful time when there will be no more night and when living waters will flow out of Jerusalem and spread across all the earth? And yes, the prophet does say that “on that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward”? (Zechariah 14)
Jesus: Yes, that’s it Peter. And my rather cryptic statement to you was really a reminder of that promise. Some terrible things are going to happen in the days ahead, but I wanted to reassure you that if you pray for God’s coming kingdom, you can trust wholeheartedly that it will someday come. So whenever you see the Mount of Olives, Peter, Friend, remember the poetic imagery of Zechariah’s prophecy, and let your prayer be for God to come and establish God’s reign. God will indeed answer that prayer! You will then see walls and mountains shattered all around!
Peter: Okay, okay. I think I’m beginning to understand what you meant about moving mountains. Sometimes your words are so mysterious, Rabbi ! I guess you do want us to think more carefully and deeply about the things you say. And I promise to try. But what about that last bit of what you said, when you said that whatever I ask for in prayer, if I believe, I will surely receive it? That sounds pretty straightforward to me!
Jesus: Well, Peter, let’s look at this a little more closely too. I do want you to ask for whatever your heart longs for. But I also want you to be aware that as you pray, believing that with God nothing is impossible, believing that God will respond to your faith, you may discover, as you draw closer into God’s orbit, that some of your desires may change. Right now you would love to zap or remove some of the troublesome people and situations in your life. Tell this to God. Believe that God is understanding and responding to you. But also be prepared to be in dialogue with God, to listen to God as well as to speak to God. And be prepared to grow and change in your innermost desires.
Peter: Well, that’s a bummer. I guess I should have known that you had something like that up your sleeve. I know you spend hours and hours alone with God, and you always come away with a renewed determination and strength, a new confidence in your mission and purpose in life, even in those times when everything seems to be going against you. Okay. So maybe I have a bit to learn. Maybe I have to really open up to God, learn to trust that phrase from Psalm 56: “this I know, that God is for me,” even when things and people aren’t going just the way I’d like them to go in my life.
Jesus: Now I think you’re beginning to get it, Peter. It is something like that. My own dreams for the kingdom have had to be “revised” as I’ve gone along. But I keep going back to God in prayer, and even when I’m shaking my fist at God because things are happening so slowly and so haphazardly, I still have a deep sense that God is with me, that God is for me, that God is shaping me and my desires, even as I bring myself more fully to trust in the mystery of the working out of God’s purposes. I’ve told you that I believe that I am going to be put to death before too much longer. Do I want this? No, I do not. And when the time comes, don’t be surprised if you hear me begging God to “let this cup pass from me.” I will be praying then exactly what my heart longs for, to be spared a vicious and violent death. But I hope you will then also hear me pray, “Your will be done,” because I think that’s where all our deepest prayers must culminate. Not with an “okay, God, I give up” sense, but rather with a deep trust that, no matter what happens, God is there for me, for us, bringing us and our world a little closer to what God has in mind for each of us and for our world.
Peter: Whew! That’s a lot to digest. Think I’ll ever be able to learn all of that, Rabbi? Ever really be able to pray like that? I sort of preferred my simplistic understanding of your zapping that fig tree and your promising us whatever we ask for in faith.
Jesus: Just keep working at it, Peter. I can assure you. Growing a meaningful faith is truly the task of a lifetime, but it is a most worthwhile task. As you work at this, there will be the joy of knowing God and knowing yourself more intimately, more fully. And yes, there will be struggles as well. There will be questions. There will be sorrows. But you will not be alone, even when it will sometimes feel as though you have been abandoned by the very God to whom you pray. Somewhere, somehow, in the depths of your soul, even when you are crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? why have you forgotten me?” I can assure you that you will experience an Unnamable Calm, and you will be enabled to say—and really mean it—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”