Inviting Responses to Gospel Statements attributed to Jesus on Prayer

I would be interested from hearing from Christians who believe they have helpful responses to the following comments.

Mark 11:24-25 Jesus says: “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. Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.” Is this accurate reporting or rather a statement which does not have correspondence with standard understanding of reality?

Matthew 21:21-22 Jesus is quoted as saying: “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. ““And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

I haven’t seen religious faith moving mountains, but I have seen what modern technology can do to buildings. The Biblical view of God and Jesus seem more associated with the dark ages, but it was humans who seem to have brought us the space age. Common sense suggests that in practice you can’t move mountains by asking God, yet in Matthew 18:19-20, Jesus says this: “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.”

Then again what about John 14:13-14: “And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son (?) If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” Again this does not appear to happen in any literal sense.

Jesus’ reported words suggest that if you pray to God, he will give you whatever you want, no exceptions. Never-mind having to get two Christians to pray for the same thing (Matthew 18:19) one will do fine! But Jesus’ claimed bold stories about prayer can clearly be debunked by looking about us at the evidence. It is a weak argument to claim that seeing as Jesus talks about needing enough ‘faith’ in a few of his speeches, the problem is that nobody has enough faith. The difficulty with this argument is that it means that NO-ONE has ever had sufficient faith, which leaves us with the puzzle of what use the claim is in the first place.

In Matthew 23:34 Jesus apparently said: “Verily I say unto you, this generation will not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”. Most commentators seem agreed that he was he was talking about the end of the world, yet it’s been nearly 2000 years since that generation died.

Here are some options.   Some modern commentators have argued that if Jesus was correctly reported he simply got it wrong.   I have for example seen it suggested that Jesus honestly thought that if he allowed himself to be martyred, God would somehow step in to make sure what Jesus was promising eg the end time prophecies would be fulfilled.

A second option is that in these gospel statements the authors or copyists were putting their own spin on what Jesus said.   After all we know that some editing was done in other places eg the whole of chapter 16 of Mark appeared to have been added many years after the gospel was produced.

A third option is that Jesus was simply talking in metaphors and hyperbole to make the point.

There may be other options.   What do you think?

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4 Responses to Inviting Responses to Gospel Statements attributed to Jesus on Prayer

  1. Dave Mourn says:

    The Mark 11:24ff passage has been handled quite deftly by Ched Myers in his book “Binding the Strong Man,” a most amazing literary, sociological, and political analysis of Mark’s Gospel. The promise made in this section as well as its Matthew 21 parallel concerning prayer comes within a most intense drama… the temple has been prophetically judged by Jesus, the temple cult and its revenue has been temporarily shut down, and symbolically a powerful image of its pending destruction has been enacted by Jesus in the withering of the fig tree. One can’t underestimate the enormity of every little detail in that account. Jesus proceeds to address the need to convince his disciples that the temple based social order can be overturned and that they should construct a new life and belief separate from it. Just have faith, “Believe in God”… the one who gave voice to those many prophets Jesus just alluded to. In that day the existence of the temple was closely identified with the deity’s existence and presence in Israel. Jesus’ repudiation of the temple provokes a most fundamental crisis regarding Yahweh’s presence. Now belief in God is a matter of faith, and to move this mountain refers to the temple… the fig tree is outside Jerusalem so they see the Temple Mount with the symbolics of mountain and God at play… but to call out to God to move the now-cursed temple and throw it into the sea (again, symbolics… sea as chaos, destruction, pigs with demons into the sea, even evil, etc.)… means the overcoming of a great tradition embedded now in powerful entities of politics… Jewish authorities, Herod, and Roman. Jesus assures them… it will be done. “The uprooter of mountains” and tree image is firmly established in secondary legal, legendary, miracle writings, and end-times literature, as technical phrases to note a great change is about to occur, a great reversal, a new age beginning.

    In this “prayer-promise” we are called in faith… that a new order can come about. Not just a Jesus centered church with business as usual, but that faith entails political imagination, the ability to envision a world that is not dominated by the unjust powers of empire or religious institutions in cahouts with political powers and the sway of affluence. It requires the way of the cross… the non-violent confrontation of violent domination.

    11:23 and 11:24 must be read together, the second a parallel echo of the first. Just as back in the 9:29 prayer… a communion with God about realities here on earth… is the absolute key. Moving with God on matters, especially in address of matters of evil, will be the way toward the new Kingdom age, the new creation breaking in upon the old and broken one.

    11:25, 26 take it a step further…. prayer… as in proper temple piety, is juxtaposed here to temple profiteering and exploitation and Mark will offer a biting satire on the practice of prayer by the ruling class (12:39ff). Moving with God (prayer), is a state of humble forgiveness, is a foundation for God’s forgiving us, and is the new temple site… important since the current temple (“house of prayer”) is cursed and soon to be destroyed.

    Thus… Jesus’ promise here in Mark is deeply embedded in its immediate context, and in that context a stirring challenge.

    Likewise, the John 14:13ff promise has its context… and here I only want to mention what it meant to make a request “in Jesus’ name.” In the Hebrew faith, name was not separate from essence of character. One immediately thinks of the scriptures where a child was named and that name carried a meaning or purpose. Jacob renamed Israel, one who wrestled with God and won. Abraham, the father of many peoples. The list is long. But to pray for something, or an event, or an outcome which bears the essence of Jesus’ character, his self-sacrificial, unconditional love, his faithful obedience to the Father… that prayer, that longing will be answered just as this text says it will… it will bring glory to God in the Son. The point… such prayers are not just for anything. They are by context prayers that bring in the Kingdom of God… which is the primary purpose and matter which Jesus’ ministry is all about and the primary theme of our gospels.

    I assume the reference to Matthew 23:34 was meant to be 24:34. Understanding Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21 is a highly contested matter which I find N.T. Wright’s correctives to long-held misunderstandings quite insightful. Understanding these sections as a sudden jump to end-times descriptions ignores many quite apparent contextual, literary, and historical factors. The apocalyptic language used here was 1st century Palestinian Jewish language for great and tumultuous political events that shake the cosmos of the Jewish world. Here Jesus is referring to the horrific seige and destruction of the temple in 70 AD… an event which turned the Jewish world upside down and was indeed seen by some in the generation Jesus was speaking to. The fact that this verse in question has to be danced around, along with an unexplained abandonment of the pressing matter Jesus is addressing to his disciples concerning their magnificent temple being destroyed, should make curious those who can’t let go of their facination with end-times. It is a small and logical step to consider the well documented and pervasive Jewish apocalyptic literature of the day… seldom (if ever?) used in the context of the end-times but rather most significant events on Israel’s horizons.

    This response is hurried… but I hope it offers a humble view into how these texts can be retained and held as things Jesus actually said. Their contexts are critical to how they are understood. I believe N.T. Wright offers an essential understanding in how the scriptures are best approached. This is not to say he gets everything right… but as he says… he offers hypotheses which hopefully answer more questions than they create.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Thanks Dave, an interesting contribution. You present a plausible justification for Jesus’ reported words on faith and prayer. You have certainly come up with an intriguing idea about what Jesus might have meant by “the mountain” intending it to be interpreted as words about the Temple. The bit that may remain unanswered is how without a complicated commentary at hand, we are meant to understand these terms in our own chosen expressions of faith and prayer. In a sense you may be letting the reader off the hook. As it happens I don’t read these particular passages as Jesus describing his faith in oblique terms – and in fact he uses straightforward and apparently unambiguous words to say if you ask anything of God in my name…. and then…of all things you ask and believe you shall receive. This is rather more straightforward than the explanation you favour and I suspect the convoluted theological explanation you suggest is too complex to expect his listeners to know what it was he was supposed to have been saying.

    That some don’t understand in the sense you want them to understand may explain why so many down through the centuries have prayed prayers that not only didn’t work – but perhaps were so improbable they could never have worked. I concede NT Wright is himself is a thoughtful and interesting writer and does provide explanations but I guess I am more interested in trying to stimulate my readers into confronting questions and using their own resources to come up with their own answers. Perhaps I should have appended the question: What should we reasonably be expected to pray for and just as importantly what should we not pray for on the grounds that it is unreasonable?

  3. Dave Mourn says:

    We seem to long for the same thing… along with the primary thrusts of Wright I might add… to stimulate followers of Jesus into using their resources to live against the great and small atrocities of our world which we might lump under “evil”. I ran into a Luther quote the other day: “Pray as if everything depends upon God, then go to work as if everything depends upon you.”

    So much of the prayer scripture cited here falls within what we might call Jesus’ time of farewell–very obvious in John’s discourse. Jesus is about to be taken from them and his disciples will be without his charismatic, guiding presence. Prayer will be their ongoing connection and link to the Holy Spirit. I regret the western church has had a primary trend consumed in prayer for the things in life that makes Jesus into a Santa Claus, physician assistant, and favor bucket. I would like to think we would find ourselves more in line with a Martin Luther King Jr whose prayer was banked against evil deeply ingrained in societal structures and the fabric of humanity itself. He, in conjunction with many, indeed “moved mountains,” and it is in such matters of injustices great and small I wish the church was consumed in prayer and faithful action in the essence of Jesus who longs to restore and redeem.

    You seem to raise a good question: Is God with us in our broken world and in what respect and how does prayer summon divine power as we implement the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated? Is it all in seeking our resources? Can we sideline a boatload of Jesus quotes–without seeking reasonable contextual understandings that may seem convoluted to us–without losing essentials of his challenge to bring mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and unconditional love to bear against the ways of domination and exclusion so prevalent in our world?

    I hope this seems less convoluted. Thanks for all you do, Dave

  4. peddiebill says:

    I particularly liked your comments suggesting all too often prayer being directed towards notions of God being Santa Claus, a physician assistant and a favour bucket. To me prayer has most value when it reminds us of what we are called to do to further the causes of compassion and justice – rather than treating it as a form of incantation and expecting results dependent on Harry Potter type magical interference.

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