Matthew 21:18-22

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”

Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Matthew 21:18-22

Interesting, how a text like this that clearly refers to the power of faith, reminds me first of how much I doubt. In this case, I doubt that a video camera would have caught Jesus getting angry at a tree and killing it. I doubt that, even if we gathered a million of the most faithful people in the world and asked them to fervently focus their prayers on moving Mount Shasta into the Pacific ocean, it wouldn’t happen.

As for the idea that “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” – in the real world, this one is just cruel. Consider the parents grieving the death of a child due to cancer. How many times did they pray for a cure, for recovery, for just a few more years together? What are they to do with a Bible verse like this one? Either they add the shame of “I guess we just didn’t have enough faith” to the pain of their loss or they just cynically walk away from the faith altogether. Multiply that by every other time that people don’t get what they pray for.

And yes, I know the old clichés, “God’s ways are not our ways,” “God’s timing,” “God’s will,” or Garth Brook’s contribution, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” The bottom line here is simply that we don’t always get what we pray for, even if a verse like this one suggests we COULD if we just believed it enough.

Maybe then, we think, we ought to read these verses figuratively rather than literally. The fig tree represents followers of God who don’t bear fruit in their lives. Does that really help? I once had a parishioner who had been obsessed by this image since her childhood. She came to identify herself as an unfruitful fig tree. Everything unfortunate that happened to her or to her family, in this faithful woman’s imagination, was her fault because Jesus was cursing her for her lack of faithfulness. Sometimes there really is a thin line between fanatic faith and mental illness.

So this passage reminds me first of my many doubts. Part of these doubts are rooted in experience. Life just doesn’t work that way. Creation just doesn’t work that way. We are often tempted to reduce faith to magic, and this is a temptation we ought always resist.

But I’m still glad that we came to these verses this morning. Because the reaction that it causes in me is, I trust, the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is good to be reminded today that fig trees aren’t landscaping features. They are tools designed to produce figs. That reminds me that every day bring many opportunities to be a fruitful Christian.

It is good to be reminded that, although I don’t expect prayer alone to undo the damage of California mudslides or prevent them in the first place, I will still pray for the victims and the first responders. If nothing else, my prayers will remind me that my life, and all of our lives, are finally in God’s care and keeping. We’ll never know the answers to all of our questions and life will never work out exactly like we wish – God isn’t Santa Claus or the Bank of the MegaMillion lottery – but that doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t an essential component to a healthy, whole, meaningful, and productive life.

This text this morning reminds me of the danger of going life alone – and the prayers we pray, or don’t pray – are a pretty good barometer to the degree to which we’re depending on God or just doing our own thing.

Remember that prayer might not always change our circumstances but prayer can and does change us to better meet those circumstances. I don’t doubt that at all.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you are always far more ready to hear our prayers than we are to pray. Rather than waiting until we muster up the faith to pray, work in us that we might pray first and in that, discover the gift of faith that you have planted in our lives. This morning we pray for all who are discouraged, losing hope, losing faith, in the face of difficult circumstances in their lives. Send people their way who can help them, and in that helping, give them a glimpse of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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4 Responses to “Matthew 21:18-22”

  1. O Says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Marlys Says:

    Your Daily Devotions add strength and courage to my day. I rejoice when I see them in my inbox.
    No, our fervent prayers are not always answered, our hearts feel broken! Through the Holy Spirit we are renewed and màrch on.
    Phil4:13

  3. Gary Reese Says:

    Rev. Kerry, this mornings reflection on prayer and the questions surrounding our degree of faith, certainly helped me today. I want my prayers to be sincere and not self centered, but then again we do need to pray for the strength and guidance that helps up live a more Christian life. God, today I ask for your help in making this ritual of prayer a more spontaneous event in my daily life, where I go to you more often to stay in your ways and to help identify with others burdens. Amen.

  4. Dave Armstrong Says:

    Right on! Amen!!

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