As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21, RSV)
Now, I don’t think I will ever understand Jesus’ cursing this fig tree, because Mark clearly says earlier in chapter 11: “for it was not the season for figs.” That leaves only the mentions that Jesus “was hungry” and “went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves...” to preface His cursing the tree. I find it difficult to believe that He lashed out at a tree because He was hungry and found no food on it, or cursed it for not bearing fruit out of season. So...I am left with the sense that something that would create understanding of this account is left ‘unaccounted.’
But there is no escape from the clarity of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ astonishment at what had happened to the tree, and how quickly it had happened. Their astonishment is even more noticeable in Matthew, who says that the cursing was followed by the withering “at once” (21:19b) Jesus then teaches a remarkable lesson on the power of faith, more specifically, perhaps, on the power of the words of those who “have faith and never doubt” (Mt. 21:20); or who, as Mark recounts, “Have faith in God.” (Mk. 11:22)
“Have faith and never doubt”? Perhaps that one italicized word explains why we both experience so little ‘mountain-moving,’ and why we see so little of it demonstrated by other believers. “Never” is total, leaving no room for faltering, for wavering, even for a moment. Is Jesus saying, then, that one either ‘has’ “faith in God” always, in all things and at all times, or one doesn’t really have faith in God at all?
I do not know that answer, of course, but logic would seem to require that assumption. No mention is made of one’s character, of being “prayed up” or “praying in the will of God,” of “being on ‘praying ground’”...nor any of the other disclaimers we often add to the stark simplicity of what Jesus actually says in more than one place in the Gospels.
All I know is that in the verses that follow—in both Matthew and Mark—Jesus makes some astonishing claims for the one who hitches faith in God to prayer to God: “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Mt. 21:22) “Whoever says to this mountain...and does not doubt in his [her] heart, but believes that what he [she] says [not asks] will come to pass, it will be done for him [her]. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and you will.” (Mk. 11:23-24)
In the face of that unqualified assurance of the power of the faith-in-God-behind-the-words of the one who talks to God, I don’t know whether I am more mortified by my inability to believe it or mystified by my failure to trust it...to trust Jesus.
Rather, it is with sadness that I confess my response is more like that of the woman in the following account, who having heard her pastor preach on these verses, quizzed him: “Does that mean that if I ask God to move that mountain that blocks the view out my window, He will?”
“Absolutely!” came his answer.
The next time he saw her, he asked whether she’d prayed thus, and what had happened. She responded: “I certainly did, and the next morning that mountain was still there, just like I thought it would be!”
“If you have faith...and [do] not doubt...Have faith and never doubt....”
Have a good week!