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Jesus’ Lesson of the Withered Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-26)

Analysis and Commentary

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Fig Tree in Jerusalem, Destroyed by Locusts

Fig Tree in Jerusalem, Destroyed by Locusts

    20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. 22 And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God.
    23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
    25 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

Jesus, Faith, Prayer, and Forgiveness

Now the disciples learn the fate of the fig tree that Jesus cursed and Mark’s “sandwich” is complete: two stories, one surrounding the other, with each providing deeper meaning to the other. Jesus explains to his disciples one of the lessons they should take from the two incidents; all you need is faith and with that, you can accomplish anything.

In Mark, a day passes between the cursing of the fig tree and the disciples’ discovery of what happened to it; in Matthew, the effect is immediate. Mark’s presentation makes the connection between the incident with the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple more explicit. At this point, though, we receive exegesis that goes beyond anything warranted by the previous text alone.

First, Jesus explains the power and importance of faith — it is faith in God that gave him the power to curse the fig tree and make it wither overnight and similar faith on the disciples’ part will give them the power to work other wonders. They may even be able to move mountains, though that is arguably a bit of hyperbole on his part.

The unlimited power of prayer comes up in other gospels as well, but every time it is always in the context of faith. The importance of faith has been a consistent theme for Mark. When there is sufficient faith on the part of someone petitioning him, Jesus is able to heal; when there is a definite lack of faith on the part of those around him, Jesus is unable to heal.

Faith is the sine qua non for Jesus and would become a defining characteristic of Christianity. Whereas other religions can be defined by people’s adherence to ritual practices and proper behavior, Christianity would come to be defined as a specific sort of faith in certain religious ideas — not so much empirically verifiable propositions as the idea of God’s love and God’s grace.

It’s not enough, however, for someone to simply pray in order to receive things. When one prays, it is also necessary to forgive those that one is angry with. The phrasing in verse 25 is very similar to that in Matthew 6:14, not to mention the Lord’s Prayer. Some scholars suspect that verse 26 was added at a later time in order make the connection even more explicit — most translations omit it entirely. It’s interesting, though, that God will only forgive someone’s trespasses if they forgive the trespasses of others.

The implications of all this for Temple-based Judaism would have been obvious to Mark’s audience. No longer would it be appropriate for them to continue with traditional cultic practices and sacrifices; adherence to God’s will would no longer be defined by adherence to strict behavioral rules. Instead, the most important things in the nascent Christian community would be faith in God and forgiveness for others.

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