“The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart.
I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.” (Mark 11:20-24)
There’s a famous story in the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark that talks about moving a mountain.
Jesus said that if you tell a mountain to move into the sea, and if you really believe and have no doubt, then it’ll happen.
Wow! Shouldn’t we then use prayer to tell this COVID thing to go away? Will it go away if we do?
It might if we pray with deep faith. Miracles can happen through deep faith. But how much deep faith is needed to move a mountain? And if we could do this, what would you pray for?
Actually, is this the story’s real meaning? Let’s go back to it — the beginning was kinda weird.
“The next morning as they passed by the fig tree Jesus had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’”
Jesus laid a curse on a fig tree?! And it withered!? What had happened the day before? Mark 11:12-14 explains:
“The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it.”
So, Jesus was hungry and maybe in a bad mood when he came across a tree with a lot of leaves but no fruit on it. Is that why he cursed the tree? Even when figs weren’t in season? Isn’t that absurd?
What’s this Bible story really about? Is it about moving a mountain with faith?
Jesus said “If you say to the mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.”
When I read this, I thought, “Wow, really!?” I’d love to think a mountain could be moved by prayers. But for me, doubt naturally came right away.
If we truly believe in God, without doubt, if we have strong faith, and no doubt, then anything can happen. Maybe it’s true. True belief, with no doubt, can move mountains.
OK: so why is it not happening? The cause is clear: our faith is shallow. We don’t have true belief. We don’t tell mountains to move into the sea because we don’t believe they will.
Jesus says, “Have faith in God.”
We are skeptics. It’s a fact that we give up at some point before making an impossible request. We don’t say, “Move forward mountain, and enter the sea!” because we know that it will never happen. The problem is that people who doubt don’t say anything in the first place because of their doubt.
We don’t take action, and this is because we don’t have belief. And because we don’t believe, because we have a feeling deep in our hearts that it can’t be true, because we can’t be 100 percent sure, we don’t really want to move the mountain to the sea.
We might say, “It could happen,” but it’s no good to say it “might,” or “may” be possible. We’ve got to believe it will happen as naturally as taking our phone out of our pocket.
“Believe … and you will be saved.” (Mark 16:16)
Suppose we do acquire mountain-moving faith. What does it mean to have that strong faith?
Does it mean the impossible can happen? Is it a miracle if we do something that is absolutely, physically, scientifically, or commonsensical impossible?
In the ’80s and ’90s, a Japanese cult recruited people by using a picture of the founder flying in the air. In that picture, he hovers above the ground, cross-legged. They called it a miracle.
Was he jumping with crossed legs?! Wow! that’s great, maybe he really flew in the air, but hold on a second, I would like to ask one thing.
What’s the point of doing that? Who gets helped? For what cause? For what purpose do we acquire a strong faith that we believe and do not doubt?
Let’s get back to the main point of this story.
The hungry traveler (Jesus) was looking for food and saw a fig tree. He went to see if he could find something to eat, but there was no fruit. He was so frustrated that he cursed the tree.
The point of the story is that there’s a hungry person who wants to eat figs, and even though it isn’t fig season, he wants to eat them anyway.
This seems selfish and socially unacceptable, it’s common sense to reject him.
Let’s use a more modern-day example. Let’s say you own a food store and a hungry traveler comes in and says, “Excuse me, do you have any bread?” And you do, so you answer, “Yes, but do you have any money?” And the moment the hungry person says to you, “No, I don’t have any money,” the story is over.
Why? Because common sense says to not give things away. The world’s economy is based on the exchange of money for things, and that principle combined with common sense says to not give something away for free.
It’s a miracle when we do something without this principle in mind. In other words, it’s a miracle if we do something that cannot be measured by common sense.
The Bible story is about a hungry traveler who wanted to eat something, so he went to look for a fig tree, but figs weren’t in season, so he returned empty-handed. At that time, I think Jesus wanted to say, “This is not good enough.”
Whether it’s the season or not, whether it’s common sense or not, the question is: what are we going to do for the traveler in front of us?
The question is whether you believe, without doubt, and either help the person or not.
Miracles won’t happen if we make up all sorts of excuses and rules and apply regular common sense; they won’t happen if we make up reasons to refuse, like “it’s not in season,” or the person had no money, or they didn’t follow society’s rules.
We can’t make miracles happen if we think from the beginning that they are impossible.
Whether figs were in season or not is not the essence of the problem; the problem is that Jesus asks whether there is a strong motivation to do something for a hungry traveler with no doubt involved.
No matter how reckless our action, we have to do something — we have to help this hungry traveler. Isn’t that what Jesus was talking about?
Isn’t Jesus trying to tell us that we need to start believing and not give up? That we need to start working miracles?
What is important here is not the depth or strength of faith to perform miracles, but the reality that miracles do happen, and the motivation behind believing this.
This is the reality, the motive, behind why miracles do take place. Every miracle, or the motivation for every miracle, must come from this.
In other words, you do it for your neighbor, for love, right? Whether or not a miracle happens depends on whether love is involved. Your sincere love for the person means that you don’t doubt that a miracle will happen, and the motive that “this has to happen, there is a reason for it” is there. That’s why Jesus told us to create miracles, isn’t it?
I don’t think Jesus wanted to simply talk about how amazing it was that something magical happened. It was more like he was telling us that if we simply said, “move, mountain,” and it did move, it would create a disaster.
Having “faith that would move mountains” is not about the wondrous things that might take place.
So what do we do about our neighbor in need? If we have faith in our desire to do something for that person, then miracles will happen.
So, we’re not really talking about whether or not we can ask mountains to move to the sea.
We may want to have the kind of faith that could send Covid away, but if it’s only done for selfish safety reasons, no miracle will happen.
That’s not faith. Faith, strong faith, without doubt, can only happen within a neighborly relationship.
If a person with faith can hover in the air, I don’t care about that. I say, “so what?” Who benefits from or is saved by that? Has anything changed? If not, it’s just self-benefiting, egoistic religion.
We need strong faith, with no doubt, to believe that miracles can happen. But where does strong faith come from? It comes, for example, in an encounter with a starving and needy neighbor that we want to help. We want to help this person, and a strong, unquestioning heart of faith is what makes miracles happen.
This is where the absurdity arises in the tale of Jesus and the out-of-season fig tree.
I have to do something to help this person, for their life. Now that I’ve met my neighbor and know his situation, I’m responsible for him. With such thoughts, we can be reckless like Jesus.
If the person has no money for food, we have no choice but to feed them. If they don’t have clothes to wear, we can’t help but get some for them.
Jesus said in Matthew 25: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Did you feed the hungry? Did you give a drink to the thirsty? Did you invite a stranger to your home? Did you give clothing to the naked? Did you care for the sick? Did you visit those in prison?
But those of us who live in this modern age say we need a reason to help others, we try to use common sense to see whether we should do it.
However, if we do it this way, we will never reach people who are really in need. I think Jesus was trying to tell us to get over that.
We could say, according to today’s story, that a faithful person can have a mysterious power that goes beyond the laws of nature. But it’s not so simple. Actually believing and not doubting is important, but somehow we’re so suspicious, and I suspect that’s why we don’t try to move mountains.
So what does it take to get over this doubt? The only way to do that is to “meet the hungry traveler in front of us” — someone in need.
When we encounter a hungry traveler, when we have an encounter that forces us to tell the fig tree to bear fruit even though it’s out of season, we will seek miracles, we will make them happen, but we won’t do it if we’re suspicious and think they won’t happen.
We need to be guided by the inevitability that miracles will happen in our encounters. That’s where true freedom comes in.
If we say, “It’s impossible,” or we give up at the beginning, or think “this is not the way I’ve always done it,” then we are saying, “I don’t care, it’s your problem.”
It shouldn’t be that way, as Paul the Apostle wrote in a letter to the Corinthians at 9:19-23. It’s a bit long, but here it is:
“Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.
I do everything to spread the Gospel (Good News) and share in its blessings.”
“I will do anything to bring the gospel to the people in front of me, to bring them the good news, to make them happy, to be like a Jew to a Jew, like a Greek to a Greek, like a weak person to a weak person.”
Paul did everything he could to help people, and so, in a sense, he performed miracles.
He didn’t hesitate or make excuses.
He just created miracle after miracle, producing more and more figs, even when they weren’t in season, or, in other words, Paul acted outside of the common sense, as Jesus did. I think that’s the kind of person Paul was.
Would you like to create something that cannot be measured by common sense?
Would you like to make a miracle?