Sometime on that very busy Monday, Jesus had apparently wanted a piece of fruit. No big deal, just a little fig as they were walking along. I wonder how often they picked fruit from trees as they wove in and out through the towns, along dusty back roads (and dusty front roads too, for that matter, since pavement was two thousand years in the future), over hills, by the sea. It wasn't like they had a chuck-wagon behind them, with a craggy, grumpy old cowboy ready to fix hearty meals over a fire he'd laid himself while they were off doing ministry. No, they lived by their wits, these first followers of Christ. And more than one fruit tree, I'm guessing, fed them. But not this fig tree, not that final Monday. It was empty of fruit, you see.
And that didn't sit well with Jesus. At least this is how I always read the story as a young believer. Just this simple, just this based on human hunger and a little put off not to be fed when He wanted to be. But, of course, this isn't really His character, is it? God Incarnate isn't mercurial so that He'll condemn on a dime what doesn't satisfy His base hungers. This would be a human response, and not a very righteous one at that. So when Jesus doesn't find a fig on that tree, and this absence causes Him to curse it for all time, I'm guessing the disciples were scratching their heads a little. Drop-jawed with the inconsistency of this response with what they'd come to know about Him. Did they whisper among themselves? Or were they so startled that they could only squeak with it? The truth is, Jesus could just have easily put a fig on that tree, if He'd had a mind to. The man had made a banquet out of a few fish and loaves, after all. So one measly fig to satisfy His hunger? Piece of cake...so to speak. But that wasn't what He was about.
The next morning--Tuesday--the disciples and Jesus have occasion to pass by the fig tree again. And not only is there no fruit among its branches, but it's positively withered from the roots. Peter (and all the others, too, undoubtedly, though he tends to be the quick-draw spokesperson, which is an all-too familiar quality, just ask my family, my whole, large extended family) remembers what Jesus had said to the tree the day before, and stops dead in his tracks. "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"
"Have faith in God, " Jesus answered. "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, "Go, throw yourself into the sea, and do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will happen, it will be done for you. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours."
Now we get to down to it. In Jesus' answer, we (and the disciples, of course) understand that the 'curse' wasn't about the fig tree at all, but was a vehicle by which He could teach about prayer. A teaching moment, some might call it today, though a better-by-a-country-mile phrase would be a sign and wonder. Almost every miracle Jesus did had the purpose of revealing something about Himself. Yes, there were times when He was simply moved by compassion. We are told that. But often, even when He healed the sick and, particularly when He raised Lazarus from the dead, He was pointing to Himself, pointing to something essential for His followers to understand in the life of faith they/we are called to. As John puts it, "These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and believing, you may have life in His name." (20:31)
So this 'curse' of the fig tree has nothing to do with the fig tree itself, and everything to do with prayer. He was performing, for the disciples, an exercise of faith. There are echoes here--or shouts for the hard of hearing, as Flannery O'Connor put it so eloquently--of John 15, where Jesus tells the disciples that, "I am the true vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers...If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you." (15:5-7) It's a visual aid, to show what is possible if--with Him in residence in us--we believe God to do what we ask. Now clearly, He's not advocating that we go around cursing fig trees or moving mountains, like we're some kind of magician. Of course not. And, come to think of it, I can't actually remember the last time anyone managed to move a mountain into the sea via prayer. The most faithful understand this isn't the point, and the rest of us thankfully don't have enough faith to actually do so.
In other places, He gave a blueprint for prayer (the Lord's prayer, for those of you who didn't catch what I meant), but here He's concerned with the foundation. And that foundation is faith. Faith. Our half-hearted, uncertain, worry-warted prayers have a way of bouncing off the walls of our ceiling and of our hearts, but that's about the end of it. No, Jesus tells us here--and many other places as well--that it's certain, full-throttle, 'I believe and I trust and I know You can and will do this' prayers that He is interested in, but those prayers mean that we believe and trust and know that He is. Just that, that He is, and that He's in relationship with us and cares about what we care about. "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and being certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)
Sometimes the best way to shore up our flagging faith, our certainty in what we do not see, but want to, is to remember the ways God has been faithful in our past. A list, a recitation of His goodness to us really does the job. When I've made such a list, it's made me feel joy and humility all at once. That God, my very Big GOD should have done so much for so puny me, who has so often doubted. It utterly slays me--and reminds me that yes--YES!!!--He lives and breathes and has made His home in me, and therefore, what I ask, He answers. I absolutely believe that the more we are willing to trust Him, the more He will do for us. Four years ago right now, our youngest, faith-filled child was convinced that Whitworth University was the only place she should go to college. The cost looked overwhelming to us. But she was certain, and God met her at her faith. No, He did more than met her, He inhabited her faith and brought it to fruition. Four years later, she is about to graduate. God has been faithful. She believed and He was faithful. This is relationship--God-dwelt, faith-filled relationship. It is both awesome and humbling.
How do you pray?