They say that I can move the mountains
And send them crashing to the sea
They say that I can walk on water
If I would follow and believe…
They say that love can heal the broken
They say that hope can make you see
They say that faith can find a Savior
If you would follow and believe
with faith like a child
- Jars of Clay, 1995, “Like A Chid”
In this passage, we encounter Jesus and His disciples on the road back to Jerusalem. It is Tuesday morning in the passion week of the Christ. From a distance, Jesus sees a fig tree but as He approaches, He notices a complete lack of fruit in its branches and He curses it so that it quickly withers. The disciples are shocked, and Jesus launches into a mini sermon on the power of faith in prayer. He encourages the disciples to also have faith when it comes to petitioning God, citing that if they do not harbor doubt, they can do miraculous things such as hurling mountains into the sea. It’s quite a cornucopia of incredible statements that often get taken out of context. But let’s start with the tree.
Jesus’ scrutiny of it would suggest it’s the time of year when the tree is supposed to bear figs, and yet there aren’t any. Not one. The tree is not doing it’s job. And Jesus tells it that it will never bear any fruit again, causing the tree to wither FROM THE ROOTS UP (Mark 11:20). This is a real life parable for the disciple’s benefit. It harkens back to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says you can identify a tree based on the fruit it bears (Matthew 7:15-20). “A good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit” (v. 18). So what kind of tree produces no fruit? A false believer. Someone who from a distance looks like their life is full of good works but who, upon closer inspection, bear no fruit at all. Jesus’ curse is not an angry outburst but a display of His feelings of religion with no substance. The apostle Paul would later write that the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22), The bottom line of what Jesus is saying is that true believers will lead this kind of life while false Christians are better off withering away. “If you only appear to have faith without putting it to work in your life, you are like the fig tree” (Study Bible, p. 1587).
Then Jesus makes an incredible claim that His disciples too can accomplish such feats and more if they only have faith. It’s not a matter of quantity but of quality. What must they have thought? Were they taken aback? I probably would have been. But really, Jesus’ comments make perfect sense if we look at them in the proper context.
No, neither you or I are going to hurl physical mountains into the sea based on our say-so no matter how much faith we have. We could, if it was God’s will, but why would He seek for that to happen? No, but we can move spiritual mountains in our lives and in the lives of others. Cancer? God’s been known to answer that prayer in the affirmative. World Hunger? God is trying to answer that prayer through us – how much are you contributing to ending it? Did you know that our world can currently feed 10 BILLION inhabitants? There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry anywhere in the world if we have enough faith (and put our faith into works). Homelessness? Again, God is trying to answer that prayer – where do you come in? Hate and anger? How loving are we being as salt and light in the world these days? The list could go on and on.
I like the way my Study Bible footnotes put it: “Jesus, of course, was not suggesting that his followers use prayer as ‘magic’ and perform capricious ‘mountain moving’ acts. Instead, he was making a strong point about the disciples faith (or lack thereof)…This verse is [also] not a guarantee we can get something we want simply by asking Jesus and believing. God does not grant requests that would hurt us or others or that would violate his own nature or will. Jesus’ statement is not a blank check” (p. 1587).
In other words, in order to fulfill a request, that request must be made in-line with the values and principles of the Kingdom. How well do we know God and His values? The better we know Him, the more in harmony our requests will be with His nature and His will. And the more we will see Him working in our lives, the lives of others, our communities, and ultimately, our world. Now that, is fruitful prayer. Are we bearing fruit? If not, it may be better for us to wither away.