The surprising thing to Jesus in this story is not the ability to work
miracles and move mountains. The surprising thing is the lack
of faith among God's people.


 

In the morning, as Jesus returned to the city, He was hungry.
Seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on
it but leaves, and said to it, "Let no fruit grow on you ever again."
Immediately the fig tree withered away.

When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, "How did the
fig tree wither away so soon?"

So Jesus answered and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, if
you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was
done
to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be
removed and
be cast into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever
things you ask in
prayer, believing, you will receive."

                                                  Matthew 21:18-22 NKJV, condensed


                            The Sign by the Side of the Road

There's an elephant in the room. We have all prayed for people,
situations and things, only to be disappointed. So why would Jesus claim,
"Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive." Some
of us as children tried this prayer experiment to see if it worked; we
believed with all our might, but no mountains ever fell into the sea.

So what is happening in this passage? Jesus was hungry and needing
some nourishment. We all know what that is like. Instead of going to
the frig like we do, he saw a fig tree and started salivating. But when he
got to the tree, it was all leaves and no fruit. Bummer! What he
experienced that morning was the perfect opening to express what
he wanted to say to his disciples.

The whole incident was something like a parable. It was no longer
about his physical hunger and disappointment. That fig tree stood for
much more. Here Jesus was, so very close to the end of his earthly
ministry with maybe one or two mornings left before the ordeal of
his passion. He felt in his heart the hunger to be welcomed by God's
people and believed in, but when he looked around the temple and
the city of Jerusalem at Passover time, he saw a "tree" that looked
good from a distance, but up close it was all show.

These people kept the letter of the law, without practicing the spirit
of the law. Publicly fulfilling the rituals and traditions, privately not
comprehending the reality of God in their very midst and in their daily
lives. They honored God with their lips, but not with trusting hearts.
They were like proud, healthy looking fruit trees, yet lacking a crop.
It was unbelievable!

The teachings of Jesus are very visual. The symbolism of his withering
words is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets who proclaimed
that those who didn't change their ways would dry up and be
destroyed just like that tree. These are strong words. They sound an
alarm, which we prefer to ignore. Just like those Old Testament people,
we too rebel against the images of judgment.

Meanwhile, the disciples were trying to figure out what had happened
to the tree, how it could be alive one minute and dead the next. They
were off on a tangent, surprised and amazed by the wrong thing. But
Jesus brought them back with a powerful lesson they needed to learn.
Faith must be worthy of the God we believe in! And we can't live the
life of a disciple without it.

How do we connect the dots between the fruitless fig tree and the faith
that will move mountains? How do we get from pretentious religious
routines that are all show with no substance to the fruitful faith that is
able to do the impossible? Mark's version of this incident includes the
words, "Have faith in God."

To Jesus, lack of faith like lack of fruit on a tree, was unbelievable.
Possessing the faith to move mountains--he believed all his disciples
could do that! Why? Because the resources of God are available to
those who put their trust in the promise and the Promiser.

According to Jesus, it is unbelievable how we struggle to believe God
will act on our behalf. Or even that there is a Listener at all! "Whatever
things" is like a seed Jesus has planted in our hearts. And we need to
allow it to unfold, take root, grow and bear an abundant harvest.
Besides, it's God who moves the mountain, not us.

That dead fig tree stood as a monument and a signal from God. People
passing in and out of Jerusalem took note and asked around until
they found out what had happened to it. Jesus cursed the fig tree! Why
would he do that? Oh, he was hungry and looking for figs to eat and all he
found were plentiful leaves. What could that mean?
It was a sobering
question. . . . until other things took precedence. Here we are,
2000 years later, and looking at the same tree. Hopefully we will pause
to consider the sign, repent, and go on to learn the lesson Jesus
taught his disciples. 

 

Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further
study or reflection.

 

Icebreaker:   Recall a scene or situation which seemed unbelievable to you.

 

Had there been reporters from the Daily News around, how do you think
they would have covered this story?
            What are the extreme actions and words they would include?
            Write the story as you think it would have sounded.

 

Here's the question I used to ask when reading this passage: If Jesus
was hungry, why didn't he use his miraculous powers to grow figs on
the tree instead of killing it?
            How would you respond to that question?

 

Jesus was in a judgment mode. First in the temple courtyard calling
the merchants thieves and upsetting their businesses, and now
condemning a fruitless fig tree.
            What effect does this kind of message have on people?
            What happens when you are told you must do things differently?
            In what ways have you changed as you listen to Jesus and follow him?

 

Which is more believable to you--that many people don't believe in Jesus
or that his disciples will receive whatever they ask for in faith?
            Why was belief, faith and trust so important to Jesus?
            What is the fruit which shows you believe Jesus was sent from God?
            Belief or unbelief--which is more prevalent in your life?
Have you seen any road signs from God lately?

 

The footnote in my Bible says from the Mount of Olives you can look
across the terrain and see the Dead Sea way in the distance.
            What does that fact add to the mountain and the sea imagery?
We look around our world and know that mountains are not falling
into the sea; yet in many ways they are!
            Discuss some of the "mountains" you have had to face?
            When have you told your mountain to go jump in the lake?

 

Rosalind Rinker suggested when we pray, we should ask these three
questions:
            For what definite thing do I pray?
            Do I believe I will get it?
            Am I able to picture myself receiving it?
Then she said we don't get from the bottom of the ladder to the top in
one leap. We go in small steps. Therefore when praying we should begin
with one small petition that we believe God would grant. She called this
a "faith-sized request". When that petition is granted, she recommends
we take an additional step and make another faith-sized request which
we are able to believe God will do.

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