“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
– Mark 11:25
I have written elsewhere about this passage (Mark 11) in its broader context (see my series of blogs on the Gospel of Mark). At the heart of the passage is the image of a fig tree. The fig tree is a metaphor, a rather difficult metaphor to get my head around. Which is perhaps what made it so compelling. I haven’t been able to shake its image over the last few months, which tells me that God is likely using it to say something important.
And given the centrality of prayer in this passage, this is what motivated me to begin to think about prayer, and more importantly my failure to pray well.
The Fig Tree and the Temple
I suggested in my previous blog that the best way I could understand the fig tree was by setting it in light of the cleansing of the Temple, which in this passage breaks up the two parts of the metaphor (11:15-19). The withering of the fig tree mirrors the destruction of the temple that Jesus foretells in 13:1-2, while the first fruits are a sign of what is to come, the promise to raise up the temple once again. And it is here that we find the great mystery, the mystery of Jesus’ coming death and Resurrection. Jesus “is” the new temple.
The withered fig tree, then, signifies a joyful expectation, the sign of something “good” that God desires to give to us, which is why a seemingly negative curse is explained in positive terms, a sign of faith, a sign of “something good” given to us in “prayer” (11:20-25).
And what is this good thing that God desires to give? I believe the answer to this question begins with the promise to erect a new temple that will be called a “house of prayer for all nations” (11:17), and it ends with the call for us to pray in 11:25. Prayer, according to this passage, is explained as the act of forgiving “so that your (our) Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” And if this is what prayer is, the good thing that God desires to give to us through this new temple is reconciliation; reconciliation to God and one another.
Prayer as Forgiveness
Now, to be honest, if I have a hard time praying I have an even harder time forgiving. As Josh Larsen suggests in his book “Movies are Prayers, “the prospect of forgiveness often seems like a pipe dream. Sometimes, beset by life’s disappointments and betrayals, praying in anger is all we can muster.”
But if it is true that it is our “faith in God” (11:22) that gives us the strength to pray- that leads us to pray, then it is this same faith in God that is able to move the necessary mountains that stand in the way of forgiveness, of reconciliation (11:23),
Prayer as Participation in the Work of God
If I am to become a better “pray-er”, I must learn to increase my faith in God’s promise, a promise to do what I cannot do on my own- forgive. And the way we increase this kind of faith is by looking towards Jesus. Jesus IS the Resurrected temple. Jesus is the house of prayer for all nations. Jesus is the one who is doing God’s work in the world on our behalf.
Which means something rather incredible. Jesus is praying for us. Jesus is praying for me. And it is because of this truth that I am able to claim the authority to say to any mountain that stands in the way of becoming a better pray-er, a better forgiver- move out of the way! And it is by praying that I am able to participate in the work that God is doing through Jesus in the world- moving mountains so that the good things God desires to give- Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Jesus, can be given into all the world, to all nations, to all people. This, according to scripture, is how we become the body of Christ, the house of prayer for all nations.
“What many are aware of today is the anomaly existing between their prayer and their life in the world. This is probably because they underestimate their worth as a partner in the dialogue of prayer.”
If I want to pray. If I want to pray well, I must begin by looking to Jesus. Jesus is the resurrected temple, the temple rebuilt. I must begin by seeing the work that Jesus, through the Cross, the very image of forgiveness at work in the world. Praying for me, praying for the world. And then I follow His example. I follow His call to have “faith, faith in God” to move the mountains that stand in the way.
And so I make the choice to participate in what God is already doing, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This is what it means to pray, to align ourselves with the body of Christ, to become the body of Christ. Having the same heart, the same love of Jesus, for the world, a world that is hurting, and even a world that sometimes (or often times) hurts us. And when we share in this desire we increase our capacity to forgive and be forgiven, because this is what prayer compels us to do. This is what prayer expects. This is what prayer promises. This is what it means to pray well, is to see a contagious and ever spreading spirit of reconciliation- to forgive others so that we can be forgiven, flowing through the prayers of our daily life and world.