We are starting a new series looking at some of the hard sayings of Jesus, and we’re starting off with this text near the end of the Gospel of Mark. The first text we read, about Jesus cleansing the Temple, happens in between the first and second parts of our main text. So as I read it, I’ll pause and tell you where the Temple cleansing happens in the narrative.
Mark 11:12-14, 20-26
12On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13Seeing 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. 14He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
THIS is where Jesus goes and throws the crooks out of the Temple. And then…
20In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23Truly 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. 24So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
When Becca and I were first married, there was a definite pattern going on. Around 5PM each day, I would get a little grumpy. There wasn’t any real reason. Now I’m a scientific person, so I started eliminated variables to try to determine the cause. There weren’t any verbal slights making me grumpy. I wasn’t worn out from the day. There weren’t any persistent stressors that were bothering me. I was at a loss. Until Becca opined, “Maybe you’re hungry.” Eureka! My scientific analysis had missed that one!
How do you react when you’re hungry? Are you more or less pleasant? Do you get a little grumpy like I do?
I ask this because it sure seems like Jesus gets a little grumpy when he’s hungry. I mean, what did this tree do to him to deserve getting cursed? Is gentle Jesus really grumpy Jesus here?
Well, with Jesus it’s always good to look at the Old Testament and see if he’s up to something. And I think he’s standing in a proud tradition here. Ezekiel, after seeing a vision and receiving a scroll, ate the scroll. Yummy! Jeremiah, to show the people that they were going to be led into captivity, wore wooden stocks as he walked around Jerusalem. Hosea, to show that God would love and forgive even the adulterous Israelites, married a prostitute whose name meant unloved.
God often speaks through these prophetic actions. They are an acted-out parable, if you will. So this isn’t just hungry, grumpy Jesus. This is Jesus making a point, and he’s using the fig tree to do it. So what’s his point?
First, we need a little more context. An ancient natural history buff named Pliny the Elder wrote down his observations of the plants and animals of the ancient world, and he wrote that the fig tree stands out among trees in that it produces fruit before leaves. So when Jesus saw in the distance, v13, a fig tree in leaf, everyone would have expected fruit. Even though it wasn’t in season – this tree was blooming earlier than usual – the fact that it had leaves meant it should have fruit.
So this tree had the outward appearance of being a healthy, nourishing tree. But it was barren and empty. Hmm.
Then Jesus trots over to the Temple and finds a bunch of crooks taking advantage of people with their sacrificial animal cottage industry. So the Temple had the outward appearance of being a house of prayer for all people, but instead it was a den of robbers. Hmm.
Then Jesus and the disciples come back to the tree and it is dead all the way – even its roots. So having the outward appearance of health without the actual fruit of health results in rotting away from the inside out. Hmm.
Are you picking up a pattern here? Are you seeing where Jesus might be going with this fig tree business?
The fig tree is a warning against having faith just for show. A warning against having skin-deep follow-through. It’s an encouragement to have faith from the inside out, from the roots up, from the core to the hands and feet, NOT just while others are watching.
How are your spiritual roots? How is your inner heart? How much of God’s life-giving water flows through your roots and shoots, and how much rot has settled in? Others may still see your leaves and assume there’s fruit, but look inside yourself for the truth. [LONG PAUSE]
Now all of us are going to find some rot in there. But luckily for us, Jesus goes on. He answers them in v22 and shows us how to overcome the rot inside and have a truly healthy, fruit-bearing tree.
V22, he says, “have faith in God.” Easy enough, right? Just have enough faith. We can all pack our bags and go home early.
But what does that look like? V23 “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, it will be done for you.”
Uh oh. I prayed this week for Pike’s Peak to scoot over a few feet. Did anyone notice any shifting up there? I must’ve been doubting!
This is where we move from a puzzling saying of Jesus to a hard saying of Jesus. Show of hands, who here has prayed for something and it didn’t happen?
So is that our own fault? Did we lack faith? If we had prayed harder would it have changed the outcome? In my previous church the wife of one of my mentors had her cancer return with a vengeance. She is one of the most faithful, spiritual people I know. She has led dozens of people to Christ, helped launch small groups across the Northeast, and was universally respected. If Presbyterians had saints, she’d be on my short list of nominations.
I know there were a lot of people praying for her. We’re not talking dozens of people praying, or hundreds of people, we’re talking thousands – plural – thousands of people praying for her recovery. One day she had a vision of being overwhelmed by light, and she woke up knowing, absolutely confident, that she had been healed. She told everyone who would listen.
So they went to the doctor to confirm it, and he returned with the results of the test, astonished. The cancer was way worse than before. There was nothing they could do.
Let me ask you – was the problem there a lack of faith? Was there not enough faith to be found within this saint of a woman? Not a single person among the thousands praying for her with even a mustard seed of faith? Did every person’s fig tree have too much rot to bear any fruit? I don’t think that’s the problem here.
Three Qualifiers of Prayer
I see three limiters of our prayers in this text. Three reasons why our prayers aren’t answered.
First, as Jesus says in v23, sometimes we do lack the faith. Sometimes we do doubt. Sometimes we don’t trust. That can be the problem for sure. As I said I don’t think that’s the answer for that saintly woman’s death. And I don’t think that’s the normal answer, either. That might’ve come into play when I prayed for Pike’s Peak to shift over, though.
The second limiter of our prayer is in v25. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” If you’re asking for grace from God. If you’re asking for forgiveness from God. If you’re asking for another chance from God. Have you granted others that same grace? That same forgiveness? Another limiter on our prayers is bitterness toward others within our heart.
So did that saintly woman harbor hidden bitterness in her heart? Is that why she died? I don’t think so. She spent the last weeks of her life blessing person after person who came to see her. She did more building up of the saints in her last two weeks than most people do in their lifetimes.
The third limiter we see in v22, “Have faith in God.” Or maybe you prefer the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” The third limiter on our prayers is God’s will. If God doesn’t will it, it ain’t gonna happen. This is the usual reason why our prayers don’t result in the action we want. Not because we lack faith – that’s sometimes the answer, but not usually. Not because we lack forgiveness – that’s sometimes the answer, but not usually. It’s usually because God had something else in mind.
God provided comfort to those who would receive it, but that saintly woman still died. God provided direction to many of those who thought they would be lost without her, but that saintly woman still died. God provided incredible blessing in her last two weeks of life, but that saintly woman still died. God provided something different than was requested, but she still died. Not because of a lack of faith. Not because of a lack of forgiveness. But because it was God’s will. But it was also God’s will for hundreds of people to hear the incredible stories of her faithfulness at the most spiritually uplifting funeral I’ve ever been a part of.
So for those of us who raised our hands earlier – that said we had prayed and not received. If you’re still asking why. It might’ve been a lack of faith, but I wouldn’t spend much time beating yourself up on that one. It’s not the usual answer. It might’ve been a need for forgiveness, a need to remove bitterness from the heart. But I wouldn’t spend much time beating yourself up on that one. It’s not the usual answer. More often than not, God had something else in mind. He’ll still provide something else if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, but not always what we asked. That’s usually the answer why.
Stand in Prayer = Persist in Prayer = Primary Activity of the Faithful = Overcoming Rot
So what are we to do, then? I mean, if we doubt God, then of course we should work on that. If we harbor bitterness in our heart, then of course we should work on that. But after that, what should we do? What does a fruit-bearing fig tree look like after those first two are out of the way?
There’s a song on Christian radio by Lauren Daigle that references our text today. The chorus says, “When you don’t move the mountains, I needed you to move. When you don’t part the waters, I wish I could walk through. When you don’t give the answers, as I cry out to you. I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in you.”
That’s what a fruit-bearing fig tree looks like. Jesus says it in v25, “Whenever you stand praying.” The word “stand” here means “persisting.” Whenever you are persisting in prayer. Whenever you keep praying despite mountains not moving, despite waters not parting, despite answers not coming. Persisting in prayer is what it looks like to be a fruit-bearing tree. What did Jesus say the Temple was supposed to be? How was it supposed to be bearing fruit, not just showing leaves? By being a “house of prayer for all people.”
Sisters and brothers, this is a hard word from Jesus, because we’ve all asked and not received. Sometimes we lack faith. Sometimes we harbor bitterness in our hearts. But usually it’s just that God had something else in mind. So this week, I encourage you, and I have to encourage myself, to be a fruit-bearing fig tree by persisting in prayer even when mountains don’t move; even when waters don’t part; even when answers don’t come. I will trust. I will trust. I will trust in You. Amen.