* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mark 11: (Don't) Let Them Eat Figs -- Problematic Lessons on Prayer

Surrounding the story of Jesus causing a ruckus in the temple in the gospel of Mark is a problematic lesson about faith and prayer which begins when Jesus curses a fig tree. The gospel of Matthew includes this fig tree episode, but places it just after the cleansing of the temple. For whatever reason the author(s) of Matthew include the end of the fig tree lesson earlier, after an exorcism story. The gospel of Luke doesn't say anything about the fig tree, or draw the same conclusions about faith and prayer (although the Gospel of Thomas twice proclaims that people can move mountains, not by faith, but by being at peace and in unity with one another). The final passage from Mark 11, dealing with the source of authority for Jesus' actions and teachings, appears in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, more or less just as the gospel of Mark conveys it. In Matthew, this passage follows just after the fig tree episode, just as it is in Mark. In Luke, this passage about authority occurs immediately after the cleansing of the temple.

We should also ask a question about a source of authority, but first, let's examine what happens with this fig tree. It's not the season for the fig tree to bear fruit, but since Jesus is hungry, he curses the fig tree. The next time the disciples see the tree, it has withered and died, and they assume that this is because Jesus pronounced a curse on it. Jesus goes on to tell them that if they have enough faith, they will be able to pray for anything and receive it, even if what they want defies natural law. He also says that people should forgive others when they pray.

Forgiving people is generally a good idea. Yet, this lesson leaves some gaping questions. If Jesus could ask for anything he wanted, including having a mountain go for a walk, why didn't he ask for the fig tree to bear fruit out of season? After all, what he actually wanted was food, right? Or did he really, deeply just want to make a tree wither? What is accomplished by this that would not have been accomplished by causing fruit to appear on the tree? He could have satisfied his hunger and made a very potent illustration about the power of faith. The lesson actually seems to be, "when you are bitter about not getting what you want, you can punish even nature for displeasing you, if you have enough faith." What an immature (not to mention utterly false) idea!

There are some things we know about the way the world behaves. Sure, there are plenty of things that we still have to learn, but the hypothesis that people's thoughts and wishes alone can change natural law has been tested and disproved. "Natural law" means that consistent observations made over a long period of time, by a variety of observers, has yielded predictable patterns. Trees don't wither because you curse them. Mountains don't move because you pray for them to. Don't believe me? You don't have to. Try it out.

Believe in yourself, or believe in whatever supernatural you like, and curse a tree that's in full bloom. Don't take any other actions to harm the tree; just curse it. Preferably gather some impartial observers, too. If your curse fails to affect the tree, is it really because you don't believe strongly enough? Or is it because curses don't really do anything?

Perhaps the idea of cursing something is too harsh. Try another experiment then. Pray for your lemon tree to bloom with roses. Or for your oak tree to sprout pomegranates. Pray for it. Really believe that it will happen. As the gospel of Mark says, believe that you have already received it. When your experiment is concluded, will you decide that your faith is weak? Or will you recognize that lemon trees don't produce roses and oak trees don't produce pomegranates? And don't excuse a failed experiment by quoting the line about not testing God. The same Jesus that is purported to have quoted that line to the devil is the one telling his disciples they can make mountains dance if they really want to.

Here's a better idea. Figure out what you really want, and do something to create it. If what you really want in your heart of hearts is to kill a fig tree, you can figure out a way to do it. We can even literally move big chunks of earth around with the right machinery. Even when we really, deeply want something, it isn't made available to us just because we want it, or wish for it, or pray for it -- even if we wish with every ounce of our being, and even if we pray with impeccable confidence. Some things are not within our control, even if we want them very badly. We can't wish people back to life; we can't pray disease away. Our wishes or prayers can't eliminate our debt, or make people like or respect us, or land us a job, or allow us to pass a test with no preparation. The studies have been done; the research is conclusive. Wishing and praying don't alter reality. Some things we are better off accepting.

We do have some influence over some things, though. When we are sharp about what we really want, beyond the fears and entitlements and vows that often impede our connection with ourselves, we have some capability to effect change. If we want better health, we have some control over our behavior and environment. If we want better relationships, we have some control over our willingness to listen, to be vulnerable, to love. If we want a more just world, we have some control over how we express compassion and speak out for justice. The things we really want in our lives and in the world are not about withering trees and moving mountains. More often than not, the things we really want are about growing within ourselves and influencing other people in a positive way. We don't do that by wishing or praying; we grow and influence by taking meaningful action.

When the question of authority comes up for Jesus in the gospel narrative, the authors aren't clear whether the priests and scribes are genuinely curious or are just trying to catch Jesus in some scandalous admission. What so many of us fail to realize is that we do not need authorization to create the lives -- the world -- we most want. Understanding that we can't revise natural law with wishes and prayers, and that we can't control other people, we can still accomplish a great deal in our lives and in the world. Of course, we have to dismantle our fears and our inappropriate shame in order to connect with our deepest, most noble selves and understand what we really want. When we understand that, though, we have permission to act in accord with our deepest, most noble selves. When we are ready to act, not out of fear or shame or entitlement, but out of our deep love for ourselves and for one another, we can be self-authorizing.

Often, we authorize ourselves to act anyway. Many times, though, this means we are authorizing ourselves to take or protect what we think we're entitled, or to fight or defend against what we fear. That level of authorization doesn't come from a place of emotional maturity; it's like cursing a fig tree out of season. If we really want a thriving fig tree that produces delicious fruit, we have to take some responsibility for the care of that tree. Our lives are like that. We can take some responsibility for the things we really want, and we can get better at distinguishing between our fears and our deep passions. Prayer won't change reality. We won't ever move mountains with just a thought. Yet, we can change reality -- for ourselves and for others -- if we are willing to create the lives and the world we most want.

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