I am not a Christian, but I was raised Catholic and still find great wisdom and insight in the Bible, especially in what are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are a great many wonderful stories and lessons in the Synoptics: the Beatitudes, Gethsemane, the parables, and so on, but my favorite moment in the Bible is chapter 11 of the Gospel of Mark. Not only do we get to see Jesus at the height of his ministry, but it shows his flaws and his humanness as well. Best of all, he speaks about the true potential of humanity in the clearest of terms.
Note: this same story appears in Matthew 21, but I prefer Mark’s version for reasons I will mention below.
Mark 11 opens with Palm Sunday, his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and then continues to this. Quotes from the KJV, what can I say, I’m old school. 🙂
12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.
After this, Jesus and his disciples re-enter Jerusalem and the famous moneychangers in the Temple scene occurs. Then this follows…
19 And when even was come, he went out of the city.
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.
There are three very important lessons in these verses. First we get to see the essential humanness of Jesus. This incredible man, this wonderful and wise teacher, loses his temper at a tree and kills it with a word (in Matthew the tree withers instantly, rather than overnight as here). This shows us that he is not perfect; he is flawed, just like all of us. How many of us have wounded another with unkindness in a moment of frustration? How many of us have gotten snappy with others, even our loved ones, when we are hungry or tired? How incredibly normal and natural! I find this moment of imperfection on the part of Jesus incredibly inspiring, because more than his temptation in the wilderness or his fear in Gethsemane or his doubt at Golgotha, this shows me a Jesus I can relate to as another man, searching for peace within and without, and occasionally failing.
The second lesson is how he turns a negative into a positive. Instead of dwelling on his mistake, he uses the awe his followers feel at the sight of the dead tree into an object lesson in the power that all have within them. Notice also, there are no caveats or limits to the power of prayer (some were added to this same story in Matthew), only that one needs to believe completely in the power of the Divine and the prayer will be answered. It doesn’t matter what is prayed for, it doesn’t matter the purity of the asker, all that matters is faith that goes beyond belief to perfect knowingness.
The third and most interesting lesson is the importance of forgiving others. This shift in the dialogue seems abrupt, almost a changing of subject, if one assumes the perfection of Jesus. But if we see him as flawed and human it makes perfect sense. He knows that he has done wrong by losing his temper and killing the tree, and in his heart he has asked the Divine for forgiveness for his trespass. Since this is on his mind, he then shares the insight that God will forgive us precisely as much as we forgive others. If we then remember that Jesus actually only three days away from his crucifixion at this moment, it makes this teaching especially poignant and relevant.
I love Mark 11. There is so much inspiration, so much power, so many incredible ideas packed into it. The potential of humanity, the importance of forgiveness, the power of faith, and tying it all together the wonderful example of this very human teacher using his own flaws to teach lessons to his followers, even as he stares his own death in the face. I may not be able to worship him as I did in my youth (the idea of it makes me laugh now) but can I draw inspiration from this wandering mystic? Absolutely.