Faith that can Move Mountains … or Not 

Faith that can Move Mountains … or Not  April 15, 2019
A mountain and the legend: "Is this true? Faith can move mountains."
Or, is Jesus talking about something other than the quantity of our faith?

It’s Tuesday after the first “Palm Sunday,” that is, after the day Jesus paraded into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus wants to teach something about faith, but what exactly? Yesterday Jesus performed in the temple what we would call an act of civil disobedience. He created a ruckus. (Disagreeing with the first three gospels, the Gospel of John says it happened earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Scholars are not sure whom to believe about the time, but they’re pretty sure, at least, that the demonstration in the temple did happen.)

Monday (according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke) began with a hard-to-figure case of Jesus in a bad mood. He cursed a fig tree for not giving him fruit when it wasn’t even the season for figs. Today, Tuesday, and we see what happened to the fig tree. With the apostles we are astonished to see that the tree is withered to its roots. Then comes a passage in Scripture that has bothered me like few others. This is what Jesus says: 

Have faith in God. Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him. (Mark 11:23) 

Well, Jesus might be able to pray a fig tree to death, but I don’t think that I can move a mountain. In fact, I can think of a lot of things, some of them even worthwhile, that I could pray for–and have prayed for–most of which won’t come true. I’m a sucker for hopeless causes. 

New appreciation for an obscure saying 

Posters and bumper stickers that say, Faith can move mountains” or Have faith and your prayers will be answered” really bug me. It’s like saying, when God doesn’t answer my prayers, it’s my fault. I didn’t have enough faith. I didn’t believe hard enough. 

So I never liked this passage in Scripture–that is, until I read Binding the Strong Man by Ched Myers. I’ve posted on him before and will probably do so again. Myers says (p. 302-5) this mountain,” the one to be thrown into the sea isn’t just any mountain. It’s the mountain on which the Temple stands, the Temple Mount. In other words Jesus is clarifying the meaning of the previous day’s demonstration in the Temple. He’s saying the days of the Temple, along with the religious-political-economic structure that it symbolized and anchored, are numbered. That system, with its purity codes, inflexible Sabbath regulations, and complex scribal interpretations of the law–all of which discriminated against the poor and further advantaged the rich–has been the nearly constant target of Jesus’ attacks in Mark’s story. 

The curse and the subsequent death of the fig tree, unlike the incident in the Temple, is not high on scholars’ lists of things that probably happened. But Mark puts it in his story like a sandwich around the demonstration in the Temple–first the curse, then the demonstration, then the withered tree. That, too, makes clear for Mark’s readers that Jesus intends an actual destruction of the way of the Temple, not merely a Cleansing of the Temple” as most Bibles name that story. 

Faith and political imagination

Jesus goes on to say, 

Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours. (Mark 11:24) 

Myers thinks this is meant to enlarge one’s political imagination.” It says, if the bigger-than-life Temple can fall, anything can happen. So it’s about prayer and faith but the context is political. But prayer and faith are important parts of Jesus’ politics. That’s because Jesus’ (and Mark’s) political methods aren’t the normal sort. Mark especially is under a lot of pressure in that respect. There’s a rebellion against the Roman occupation on one side. There are Jewish collaborators with Rome on the other. The Christian community is caught in the middle.  

Mark believes, with Jesus, that there’s something bigger than moving a mountain and more important than defeating the Romans. That, by the way, didn’t happen–the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple around the time that Mark wrote. Seeing an end to the course of domination in human affairs, whether by the military power of Rome or by the religious power of Jewish elites, that’s worth living and dying for. That’s why Jesus rejected the temptation to be a world conqueror and went to the Cross instead.  

To support the cause of the oppressed, but to forsake violence, which only leads to another round of domination, puts one in danger from both sides. That’s the “cross” Mark urges on his community and us. Faith and prayer–and maybe only those–can sustain that kind of struggle. 

Image credit: Neverthirsty via Google Images

 

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