Currently in Sunday school, we are going through “difficult” passages in the Bible. A couple weeks ago, I was reminded of the importance of prayer while reading Mark 11:12-25 with our Sunday school class. In this passage, Jesus curses a fig tree when he finds no fruit on it. The narrative then shifts to the temple at Jerusalem, where Jesus clears out the money changers. Finally, it returns to the fig tree, which is now withered. It ends with a puzzling and “difficult” passage:
“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” – Mark 11:23
Is Jesus just telling us that we can ask for whatever we want? Do we just need to “have enough faith” and anything can be accomplished?
The first thing to notice about this passage is that it forms a “Markan Sandwich,” a literary technique in which Mark interposes one story on top of another, resulting in an A-B-A pattern:
A. Jesus sees a leafy fig tree, but there isn’t fruit on it. Mark 11:12-14
B. Jesus clears the temple. Mark 11:15-19
A. Jesus gives a lesson from the fig tree. Mark 11:20-25
Now, what has a fig-tree got to do with the temple? Why does Mark interrupt one story (fig tree) with another (temple) only to return to the original story? When it comes to Markan sandwiches one story usually helps us to understand the other. Let’s see how this plays out:
First, Jesus sees a leafy fig tree. Mark emphasizes that this tree is “in leaf” and that Jesus “found nothing but leaves.” The tree has the appearance of fruitfulness, but it is not bearing any fruit. Why? Because, as Mark says, “it was not the season for figs” (11:13).
Next, we find Jesus in the temple. What is the temple? A place for worship; Jesus himself says that it ought to be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (11:17). What does he find instead? A “den of robbers.” The temple then, has the appearance of worship, but underneath, it is rotting with greed and injustice. Like the fig tree, the temple has the appearance of fruitfulness, but none of the real fruit.
This brings us back to the fig tree, which is now “withered away to its roots” (11:20; sidenote: does this mean it has lost its leaves?). Jesus gives the following lesson:
“…Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” -Mark 11:20-25.
Now the difficulty of the passage is resolved in context. Jesus is giving a lesson about authentic faith, one which isn’t just about appearances, but one which bears true fruit. What kind of fruit? Would it be too much to suggest that faith bears fruit in prayer? The temple is supposed to be a house of prayer. Jesus’ lesson is about having faith in prayer, petitioning God in prayer, and forgiving in prayer. Of course, there is so much we could pull out of this passage, but we can draw this general application: a Christian life that lacks prayer only has the appearance of fruitfulness, but none of the real fruit.
This doesn’t mean we can just go off and uncritically pray for whatever we want. To do so would be to act like the money-changers, who used a place of worship for selfish gain. Instead, this passage in Mark encourages us to cultivate true faith and true prayer. And, beyond our individual lives, the Church ought to be “a house of prayer for all the nations.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that real, authentic prayer often takes a back seat to serving at church, Bible study, friends, hanging out, homework…and the list goes on. But as Mark (and the Bible) show, prayer is an essential part of a thriving Christian life.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. – Psalm 19:14