Teach Us to Pray (Mark 11:12–25)

Read Mark 11:12–25:

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

At first read, Jesus' last lesson seems random. He curses a tree, cleanses the temple, and then tells his disciples to have faith and forgive. Taken all together, however, this story illuminates the interconnectedness of worship and ethics—how we treat God and how we treat one another. Our prayer is not something private and separate from our relationships with others.

The temple’s purpose was to provide a place where all people could gather in the presence of God. Jesus’ judgment does not abolish the temple altogether. Rather he establishes a new temple with himself as the foundation. Jesus does not replace the temple with the practice of private prayer. He founds a new community of forgiveness. We therefore hear Jesus’ cursing and cleansing as a warning to we who serve as the temple today. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?" (1 Corinthians 3:16). The pronouns (“you”) are plural in the original language, meaning that Paul is primarily referring to the community of believers, not each individual. The implications Paul draws from this are somewhat unsettling. In short, my sin is not my business; it affects the whole Body of Christ. 

Today, in an individualistic society so far from first century Judaism, it takes time, effort, and imagination to even begin to think this way. We cannot compartmentalize religion from relationships. Here and elsewhere, Jesus binds together God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of one another:

"When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins" (Mark 11:25).

In Matthew, Jesus’ command is even more urgent and embodied:

"So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23–24).

Forgiveness and reconciliation are prerequisite to prayer. We cannot neglect the rifts and ruptures in our community and expect our worship to bear fruit. Examine yourself today. Guilt and grudges run like background noise in our minds and hearts. Spend time in silence and see what surfaces. Are you harboring any bitterness or resentment toward someone? (It might feel more like righteous indignation.) Have you hurt or neglected someone? Whether you need to forgive or to ask for forgiveness, seek an opportunity to reconcile.

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Tomorrow on the Daily Connection: Deeper Dive Podcast

About the Author
Nick Chambers is the Director of Spiritual Formation at Calvary UMC