December 10, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 21:18-22.
When he was going back to the city in the morning he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And immediately the fig tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed and said, “How was it that the fig tree withered immediately?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, 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.”
This is probably the most difficult passage for me in the whole Greek Bible.
Luke gives us the parable of the fig tree that hasn’t produced for three years and the owner told the gardener to cut it down, but the gardener persuaded him to give him one more year to fertilize and tend it. So, it seems that time is up; the tree is to but cut down, or withered. As Mark tells us in this story, it was not the time of year for the tree to produce figs. Jesus obviously knew that. Was he out of patience with the Jews? Or just out of time and frustrated in his mission to convert their hearts? It seems to be a continuing playing out of the tension within him as he knew his end was coming as we read in the cleansing of the temple of the money changers that preceded this passage.
As with many stories this is a metaphor and unrelated to the time of year. The fig tree was the most cherished in the region. The tree represented the tree of life and its fruit was the sweetest. It symbolized the Jews as the favored, chosen people of God and as the sign of His gift of fertility and prosperity. It provided refreshing shade, protection from the harsh glare of the summer sun. But God’s people had not borne fruit; they did not appreciate the great gift of God’s Son among them, Emmanuel. Its withering prefigured the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the suspension of God’s protection and favor.
That’s not the part that troubles me, though. Most of my commentaries don’t address this promise of results from prayer in faith. Jesus says plainly that whatever we ask for in prayer with faith will be given to us. Did Jesus only promise this to his disciples and no one else? Maybe instead this is a further indictment of the Jews. Maybe Jesus saw that they only gave lip service to their worship and obedience to God, that their prayers lacked genuine faith. If they had only prayed in faith, their eyes and hearts would have been opened to Jesus. They would have received the salvation that they longed for; they would have entered into the kingdom of God.
Fr. Gilmary’s homily yesterday seemed directed to me — the best homilies always do. He talked to us about the folly of taking ourselves seriously rather than the power that comes from taking God seriously. Barclay writes, “He promises that prayer gives us the ability to do. Prayer is never the easy way out; never simply pushing things on to God for him to do them for us. Prayer is power. It is not asking him to do something; it is asking him to make us able to do it ourselves. Prayer is not taking the easy way; it is the way to receive power to take the hard way. It is the channel through which comes power to tackle and remove mountains of difficulty ourselves with the help of God….Prayer is the means whereby we receive power to do things for ourselves. Therefore, no man should pray and then sit and wait; he must pray and then rise and work; but he will find that, when he does, a new dynamic enters his life, and that in truth with God all things are possible, and with God the impossible becomes that which can be done.”
I need to work at changing the way I think of and engage in prayer. I need to stop taking myself so seriously and instead take God seriously. I don’t want to be the fig tree that withers because it lacks appreciation for the power of God to be used to produce sweet fruit and refreshing shade.
Barclay goes on to state, “Prayer is the ability to accept, and in accepting, to transform. It is not meant to bring deliverance from a situation; it is meant to bring the ability to accept it and transform it….We must always remember that prayer does not bring deliverance from a situation; it brings conquest of it. Prayer is not a means of running away from a situation; it is a means whereby we may gallantly face it….Prayer brings the ability to bear. It is natural and inevitable that, in our human need and with our human hearts and our human weakness, there should be things which we feel we cannot bear. We see some situation developing; we see some tragic happening approaching with a grim inevitability; we see some task looming ahead which is obviously gong to demand more than we have to give to it. At such a time our inevitable feeling is that we cannot bear this thing. Prayer does not remove the tragedy; it does not give us escape from the situation; it does not give us exemption from the task; but it does make us able to bear the unbearable, to face the unfaceable, to pass the breaking point and not to break. So long as we regard prayer as escape, nothing but bewildered disappointment can result; but when we regard it as the way to conquest and the divine, dynamic things happen.”
Those are among the wisest words about prayer that I have ever read. Taking God seriously instead of myself. In that I may be transformed. That is how the power of God manifests himself in me. Through the prayer of acceptance, of bearing, of doing myself with His help. That is prayer with faith, prayer that will enable me to lift a mountain into the sea. This passage no longer troubles me; it encourages me.