A week after leaving West Virginia, I read Matthew 21: 18-22 for our weekly MICAH meeting. It’s a familiar passage:
In the morning, when Jesus returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea”, it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.’
The last few sentences are often quoted either to encourage people to have more faith, or to chid people that they don’t have enough faith. When we pray and ‘get things’ then we clearly have mountain-moving faith but if we don’t then the implication can be: Jesus said you could move mountains so if you can’t get what you want then you just don’t have enough faith. The first part of the passage is usually ignored or seen as a bit weird: Jesus being grumpy about being hungry doesn’t seem so nice.
But having just returned from our trip, suddenly the passage took on a whole new meaning. What if this isn’t an encouragement for faith, but rather a warning about not using our faith wisely? Because, well, we now can cause plants to die in an instant and we can move a mountain and throw it down into the sea.
Perhaps we don’t think of weed killers and mountain top removal as being similar to ‘asking in faith,’ but what is prayer but an expression of our intentions and a desire for action in the world? If we can obliterate a 200 million year old mountain in 20 years or less, that certainly looks like an instant from the perspective of the mountain. Or if we can wipe out thousands of plants in an afternoon because we designate them as ‘weeds’ and we are hungry for the ‘good’ plants, that also demonstrates our power over the rest of the natural world.
Jesus indicates that we can do these incredible things, yet he doesn’t say that they are good or that we should do them. And now that we can throw a mountain into the sea we know definitively that it’s not good. Our power is tremendous and if we don’t recognize this we are in danger of doing many many bad things, for our intentions carry great weight. Yet most of the time we read this passage and think, “Nah I can’t do that,” and this lack of awareness causes us to choose poorly.
Yet what if we accepted our power? What if we realized the responsibility given to us because we can actualize our almost every thought? Would we not tread much more lightly? Might we not embrace humility rather than hubris?
I’m still wearing the green string I was given when we visited the mountain top removal site. Paul, our host, asked if we would wear it to remember what was being done to his home. So I still have it on and it does remind me of him and the people whose lives are being destroyed.
But now it also reminds me of something else: our power.
What do we use this power for? We can blow up the world thousands of times. We can spray hundreds of bullets into a crowd in a second. These are expressions of our rage, our desire for power over others, our will to conquer, our hate.
But we can also use this power for love. This is what we, people who claim to follow Jesus, are asked to do. How much faith and intention do we put towards that aim? What if we asked to move mountains of hatred instead of mountains covered with forests?
Do we believe we could do that? Do we even try?