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The surprising thing to Jesus in this story is not the ability to work miracles and move mountains. The surprising thing is the lack of faith among God's people.
In the morning, as Jesus returned to the city, He was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again." Immediately the fig tree withered away.
When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the fig tree wither away so soon?"
So Jesus answered and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive."
Matthew 21:18-22 NKJV, condensed
The Sign by the Side of the Road
There's an elephant in the room. We have all prayed for people, situations and things, only to be disappointed. So why would Jesus claim, "Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive." Some of us as children tried this prayer experiment to see if it worked; we believed with all our might, but no mountains ever fell into the sea.
So what is happening in this passage? Jesus was hungry and needing some nourishment. We all know what that is like. Instead of going to the frig like we do, he saw a fig tree and started salivating. But when he got to the tree, it was all leaves and no fruit. Bummer! What he experienced that morning was the perfect opening to express what he wanted to say to his disciples.
The whole incident was something like a parable. It was no longer about his physical hunger and disappointment. That fig tree stood for much more. Here Jesus was, so very close to the end of his earthly ministry with maybe one or two mornings left before the ordeal of his passion. He felt in his heart the hunger to be welcomed by God's people and believed in, but when he looked around the temple and the city of Jerusalem at Passover time, he saw a "tree" that looked good from a distance, but up close it was all show.
These people kept the letter of the law, without practicing the spirit of the law. Publicly fulfilling the rituals and traditions, privately not comprehending the reality of God in their very midst and in their daily lives. They honored God with their lips, but not with trusting hearts. They were like proud, healthy looking fruit trees, yet lacking a crop. It was unbelievable!
The teachings of Jesus are very visual. The symbolism of his withering words is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets who proclaimed that those who didn't change their ways would dry up and be destroyed just like that tree. These are strong words. They sound an alarm, which we prefer to ignore. Just like those Old Testament people, we too rebel against the images of judgment.
Meanwhile, the disciples were trying to figure out what had happened to the tree, how it could be alive one minute and dead the next. They were off on a tangent, surprised and amazed by the wrong thing. But Jesus brought them back with a powerful lesson they needed to learn. Faith must be worthy of the God we believe in! And we can't live the life of a disciple without it.
How do we connect the dots between the fruitless fig tree and the faith that will move mountains? How do we get from pretentious religious routines that are all show with no substance to the fruitful faith that is able to do the impossible? Mark's version of this incident includes the words, "Have faith in God."
To Jesus, lack of faith like lack of fruit on a tree, was unbelievable. Possessing the faith to move mountains--he believed all his disciples could do that! Why? Because the resources of God are available to those who put their trust in the promise and the Promiser.
According to Jesus, it is unbelievable how we struggle to believe God will act on our behalf. Or even that there is a Listener at all! "Whatever things" is like a seed Jesus has planted in our hearts. And we need to allow it to unfold, take root, grow and bear an abundant harvest. Besides, it's God who moves the mountain, not us.
That dead fig tree stood as a monument and a signal from God. People passing in and out of Jerusalem took note and asked around until they found out what had happened to it. Jesus cursed the fig tree! Why would he do that? Oh, he was hungry and looking for figs to eat and all he found were plentiful leaves. What could that mean? It was a sobering question. . . . until other things took precedence. Here we are, 2000 years later, and looking at the same tree. Hopefully we will pause to consider the sign, repent, and go on to learn the lesson Jesus taught his disciples.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Recall a scene or situation which seemed unbelievable to you.
Had there been reporters from the Daily News around, how do you think they would have covered this story? What are the extreme actions and words they would include? Write the story as you think it would have sounded.
Here's the question I used to ask when reading this passage: If Jesus was hungry, why didn't he use his miraculous powers to grow figs on the tree instead of killing it? How would you respond to that question?
Jesus was in a judgment mode. First in the temple courtyard calling the merchants thieves and upsetting their businesses, and now condemning a fruitless fig tree. What effect does this kind of message have on people? What happens when you are told you must do things differently? In what ways have you changed as you listen to Jesus and follow him?
Which is more believable to you--that many people don't believe in Jesus or that his disciples will receive whatever they ask for in faith? Why was belief, faith and trust so important to Jesus? What is the fruit which shows you believe Jesus was sent from God? Belief or unbelief--which is more prevalent in your life?Have you seen any road signs from God lately?
The footnote in my Bible says from the Mount of Olives you can look across the terrain and see the Dead Sea way in the distance. What does that fact add to the mountain and the sea imagery?We look around our world and know that mountains are not falling into the sea; yet in many ways they are! Discuss some of the "mountains" you have had to face? When have you told your mountain to go jump in the lake?
Rosalind Rinker suggested when we pray, we should ask these three questions: For what definite thing do I pray? Do I believe I will get it? Am I able to picture myself receiving it?Then she said we don't get from the bottom of the ladder to the top in one leap. We go in small steps. Therefore when praying we should begin with one small petition that we believe God would grant. She called this a "faith-sized request". When that petition is granted, she recommends we take an additional step and make another faith-sized request which we are able to believe God will do.