There’s a curious story found in Matthew (and Mark) that’s always bugged me. Jesus has already made his triumphant, attention-grabbing entry into Jerusalem. He’s been staying in Bethany, possibly with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It’s morning, and Jesus and the Twelve are heading back into Jerusalem. Apparently, Jesus hasn’t had his breakfast yet. He sees a fig tree in full leaf; it would be reasonable to expect to find edible fruit on it (though Mark tells us it wasn’t time yet). But the tree is barren of figs. Jesus therefore curses the tree, and it withers away, to the astonishment of the disciples.
The story rankles because it seems like we’ve caught Jesus in a bad mood. But that reading probably says more about me than Jesus. I’m the one who would have been bent out of shape and then vented my frustration on the tree. But it’s almost comical to believe this of a man who fasted for forty days in the wilderness and even then refused to give in to the temptation to conjure up a little snack (Matt 4:1-11).
In context, set against the backdrop of Jesus cleansing the temple (see previous post), it makes more sense to read this (as does N. T. Wright) as a dramatized parable of withering judgment against the fruitlessness of Israel. We’ve seen this metaphor before in Matthew. One might think of John the Baptist’s condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees in chapter 3: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (vs. 8). Or the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he warns his disciples against false prophets, who are to be known by their (bad) fruit (7:15-20).
How much of this do the disciples understand? They’re amazed at the miraculous shriveling of the tree, but seem to notice little else. So Jesus turns it into yet another teaching opportunity:
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matt 21:21-22, NIV)
One can easily imagine how badly such a verse can be abused from a “name it and claim it” orientation. Pray for whatever you want–you just have to believe it with all your heart, and God will give it to you. If your prayer isn’t answered, well, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. Or you allowed a little doubt to creep in somewhere–shame on you.
Is that what Jesus is saying? I find it impossible to believe so.
Let’s get down to cases. It’s the Passover festival in Jerusalem. Jesus has come into the city to great fanfare, and excitement and expectation are in the air. Adults and children alike are shouting their hosannas to the Son of David. What do the disciples want, right at that moment? What would be their greatest hope and desire, the thing for which they would plead most earnestly to God?
I imagine the prayer would go something like this: “Please, God, let Jesus finally be the one. We believe that he is the Messiah. Drive out the Romans and establish him as king! Restore your people to their rightful place!” And if so, can we really imagine Jesus saying to them, “Now all you have to do is truly believe in your hearts that God will do it, and it will be done”?
Hardly. And why not? Because that’s not the plan. Jesus has already taught and demonstrated repeatedly that he will not fulfill the people’s nationalistic hopes–at least, not in the way they expect. He will do things God’s way, and no amount of earnest pleading on the part of the Twelve will change that.
Jesus, therefore, cannot be teaching that God will do whatever you want if you just pray hard enough. These words were spoken at a crucial time in the lives of the Twelve. Jesus has just earned himself the ire of the temple authorities by disrupting business-as-usual during the height of the festival. In their eyes, he’s had the gall to pander to outcasts in the temple courts. And he’s acted out a parable condemning Israel for her spiritual barrenness.
The kingdom Jesus brings is at odds with the kingdom the people want. In a matter of days, that conflict will cost Jesus his life. The disciples are about to be thrown headlong into the most difficult time of their lives. Jesus knows it.
Jesus, I believe, is not giving the disciples a lecture on the power of faithful prayer; he’s encouraging them to trust God and stay the course. He is not saying, “You think withering the fig tree was something? That’s nothing. If you really believe, you can do bigger things than that–like throwing a mountain into the sea.” Wright insists that Jesus is referring specifically to this mountain, the Temple mount. If so, then Jesus isn’t talking metaphorically about praying for just anything, but acting in accordance with God’s kingdom purposes, even if it means upending the established order.
Not everyone agrees with Wright on this score (I’m not completely convinced myself). But surely Jesus, knowing full well the chaos that was coming, wanted to encourage the Twelve in their faith. And not just faith in the sense of believing in a true statement, but rather in the sense of trusting in a true God.
Make no mistake: faithful prayer is powerful–but not because we have mustered up the strength of will to believe in the impossible, forcing God to do as we ask. Faithful prayer is powerful because it aligns our will with God’s, encouraging us to trust him to move the right mountain at the right time.