Prayer and Apocalypse

By James Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 21:12-22

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
   but you are making it a den of robbers.”

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
   you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19And 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. 20When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21Jesus 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. 22Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”


Today’s gospel reading describes Jesus’ encounter with a fruitless fig tree. The tree, having borne no fruit, is cursed by Jesus, and withers away. What are we to make of this?

First, it is worth exploring what the fig tree represents. Jesus, it is said, found “nothing” on the fig tree, “only leaves.” This hearkens back to another story of fruit and fig leaves in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were found with “nothing” on themselves, and so they covered themselves with fig leaves. The leaves on the fig tree, it would seem, are simply a disguise for the beginning of death within.

The curse merely reveals the truth of the tree. It is as though final eschatological judgment is made present in Jesus’ words: this tree is dead, fruitless. It is worth noting that the disciples’ reaction is not wonder at the tree’s withering; instead, they marvel at how soon the withering has occurred — perhaps they too saw the death before it was made present.

So why does Jesus then speak of prayer? We should beware, because, he says, prayer has the power to reveal the ultimate truth of things. Jesus alludes to a mountain being cast into the sea, which hearkens forward to a fiery mountain being cast into the sea in the book of Revelation. Prayers are apocalyptic — they usher in the realities of the eschaton. T. S. Eliot once wrote that “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” so for many, indeed, faithful prayer may feel like a “curse” as it reveals what’s true. But for Christians who say, “Even so, come Lord Jesus,” the curse of being stripped bare is swallowed up in blessing.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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