One day, during the days leading up to Christ’s arrest, Jesus passed by a fruitless fig tree. In the text, Mark 11:12-14, it appears that Jesus unjustly curses the tree since figs were out of season. That seems completely out of character until you consider the rest of the story.
Mark’s gospel quickly moves from the fig tree to Jesus cleansing the Temple of the merchants and money changers. To explain His actions, Jesus said, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” (Mark 11:17, NLT) The leading priests and teachers of religious law were angry and began to plot how to kill him. But because of the amazed crowd, they didn’t take any action that day. Mark instead reports that Jesus and the disciples left the city and returned to Bethany.
The next morning, they again passed by the fig tree that was cursed the day before, and the disciples noticed that it was withered from the roots up. To which Peter exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!” (Mark 11:21, NLT) “Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.”
A fantastic promise. Just believe, without any doubt. Just pray, believe, and it is ours. But let’s consider this just a bit more before we claim our fortune. If financial success and bounty are the goals of faith, then why did Jesus remove the profitable activity of the merchants and money changers? Also, consider this. In both instances where Jesus promises the moving of mountains, it isn’t what we think. Jesus said, “this mountain” in both the text from Mark and the instance in Matthew 17:20. Neither text is clear whether Jesus is pointing to a specific mountain or is being metaphorical. In fact, in the 2000 plus years of faith in Christ, there is not one instance of a physical mountain miraculously moving. But mountains have been moved, such as the mountains of overwhelming circumstances, corrupt power structures, and the largest mountain of all – our sin.
But what about prayer? Surely God hears and answers us. Many have shipwrecked their faith on this promise through false expectations. The Apostle John provides an additional note, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” (1 John 5:14–15, NASB95) Perhaps we need to search the heart of God before we pray.
I think that Jesus buried the lead, which means that the most important part comes last. Often left out when folks quote Mark 11:23-24 is what Jesus said in verse 25. “But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.” (Mark 11:25, NLT)
This whole narrative, from the fig tree to the Temple merchants to the promise of prayer, is about forgiveness. That may seem stretched but consider this for a moment. Jesus demonstrates unforgiveness towards the fig tree. How often are we offended and reject someone because they didn’t meet our expectations in our timeline? That fig tree would have eventually born fruit, but unforgiveness removed that possibility. Unforgiveness is always unjust.
The Temple system, which the merchants and money-changers were a part of, prevented people from encountering God instead of inviting all to prayer. On the surface, it may seem that they were following the Law of Moses, but the Wilderness Tabernacle was not as segregated as the Jerusalem Temple came to be. For instance, Leviticus 17:8 invites non-Israelites to bring a sacrifice to the temple, but we see in Acts 21:27-28 where they accused Paul of defiling the temple by escorting Trophinmus past the Court of the Gentiles. Prejudice of all kinds is preemptive unforgiveness based on who someone is or what we fear they may do. Jesus, on the other hand, underscored that all nations are welcome to pray. Perhaps we could call it preemptive forgiveness.
Even the promise of moving mountains touches forgiveness. After all, what is the largest mountain in our life? Is it not the sin that stands between God and us? Second to that are the mountains of unforgiveness we pile up towards others.
I believe that Jesus is instructing us to remove the mountain of unforgiveness before we tackle the other mountains which seem to be in our way. The unforgiveness we harbor due to unjust and unrealistic expectations, unforgiveness found in ALL forms of prejudice, and the unforgiveness caused by our sin or the sin of others. Have faith in God, speak to this mountain of unforgiveness, and it will be thrown into the sea.