In the morning, when Jesus 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 (NRSV)
Is Jesus really saying that faith lets us do anything? As in, asking in faith means God will give us literally whatever we want? Need to move that hill? Just believe at it. Hoping for a better situation in life? Just have a bit more faith. Want to keep a loved one from dying? Faith is the answer!
Clearly this is not how things work. Faith isn’t magic. And, following this to its logical conclusion, it isn’t reasonable to attribute an unfortunate situation to someone’s lack of faith. That’s just victim blaming with a veneer of religion.
Fortunately, this instruction on faith doesn’t come apropos of nothing. For context, on the previous day, Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, then overturned the money-changers’ tables, and fought with the temple authorities. The next morning, while walking into Jerusalem, he pronounces the fig tree’s fate and offers this instruction. Later that day, Jesus and the authorities continue their public conflict. The authorities remain resolutely obtuse to God’s action in Jesus and Jesus’ criticism of them becomes increasingly pointed.
The secret to understanding this lies in knowing that this fig tree isn’t just a fig tree. For Israel, fig trees have long stood as a symbol of national wealth and prosperity, or even as an icon of Israel itself. Yesterday, Jesus took prophetic action against the corruption infecting the heart of Israel—the self-serving, power-grasping temple authorities. This morning, he symbolically recapitulates that same action in pronouncing the fig tree fruitless.
In the same vein, the mountain isn’t just a mountain; it’s this mountain. Zion, the one they’ve traveled so long to wonder at and worship on. The mountain that’s supposed to be God’s home on earth, but has more and more become a shrine to human wealth and power. The mountain that will soon be leveled by war and abandoned.
Reading this passage together with the rest of the chapter, we see that Jesus is reassuring the disciples about the huge change coming for upset the temple, the Jerusalem establishment, and indeed all of humanity. This isn’t a promise that faithful people can magic anything into existence, but encouragement to follow where God is leading. Even when it seems incredibly unlikely, even when it looks like we can’t possibly go that way, Jesus encourages us to say our prayers, to trust in God, and then follow Jesus out into the wild unknown.
Blessings on your journey, friend.
Yours in Christ,