April 19, 2011
Lawrence Ecumenical Worship
I once came across an article that had been clipped from a Kenneth Copeland newsletter. In case you don’t know, Kenneth Copeland is a popular prosperity gospel preacher who runs a world-wide ministry and hosts a TV show. It seems that Ken’s children came to him one day and told him that they wanted a boat. And he told them that they should pray for whatever they wanted and God would provide it. So the children began praying for a boat. . . . and sure enough, before too long, the family was given not one, but two boats.
For Kenneth Copeland, and I’m sure for whoever clipped out that article, this was a story of God’s faithfulness. A story about the power of prayer. I don’t remember for sure, but it’s entirely possible that the article even quoted Jesus’ words from Mark 11: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
That’s the verse I think of when I hear stories like this. And, to be honest, it makes me a bit wary of the verse. It’s hard for me to understand how God would answer the Copelands’ prayers for a boat and ignore so many other prayers–for people who were ill, for nations at war, for abused children and lost souls. And if it is true that Kenneth Copeland’s children have a level of faith that allows them to call forth whatever they want from God, why were they wasting their prayer energy on something as insignificant as a boat? I mean, what if they had prayed for peace in the Middle East instead?
It seems I’m not the only person who has questions about this particular teaching from Jesus: “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.” It’s a bold statement. Dramatic. Spectacular.
Really, if we’re honest, a bit too bold and spectacular for comfort. Which may be why Biblical scholars have spent a lot of ink trying to explain this statement; trying to make it into something that makes at least a little bit of sense.
One theory is that Jesus was talking about the mount of Olives. This reference is significant because on the day of the Lord, Jewish tradition held that the Mount of Olives would be broken in two. So perhaps Jesus is saying that his followers have the ability to proclaim the coming of God’s Kingdom; that their faith will assure the day of the Lord.
Perhaps, say some, Jesus was referring to the mountain that held Herod’s fortified palace–the walled edifice that stood high above the city of Jerusalem. Certainly many people would have cheered to see that mountain dumped into the sea–and Herod along with it. Maybe Jesus is telling the disciples that they will indeed be able to overthrow the oppressive Roman Empire.
Or it’s possible that Jesus was talking about the smaller mountain that was next to the one that contained Herod’s palace. That mountain was smaller, in part, because Herod’s workers had taken huge chunks of it to build up the mountain where his palace would sit. That’s right. Herod had moved a mountain. If Herod could do it, why not Jesus’ followers?
Probably the most common explanation you will find on this particular passage is that Jesus is using hyperbole. You know, he’s exaggerating for effect. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Remember the bit about how it’s easier for a rich person to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle? He also said that if your eye causes you to sin you should gouge it out. These kinds of over-the-top examples would wake up a sleepy crowd; jar people into listening.
“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.”
I’m sure that line got the disciples’ attention. It still grabs our attention today. We pay attention to it, and we are somewhat disturbed by it. I do find the various theories about what Jesus meant by this line quite interesting. But even more fascinating, I think, is the fact that we seem to have a compulsion to explain Jesus’ saying. To justify his words somehow.
I’ve been wrestling with Jesus’ teaching on prayer—off and on—for several years now. And I think I’m beginning to understand the compulsion to explain and justify Jesus’ words; or at least I’m beginning to understand my compulsion.
Partly, I don’t want to feed this notion of the Santa Claus God—this guy in the sky that gives us boats if we just ask the right way. But beyond that, much deeper than that, the compulsion to explain Jesus teaching about mountains jumping into the sea comes from the fact that I’ve seen plenty of mountains stay right where they are, despite fervent prayers.
The cancer that spread. The relationship that crumbled. The job that fell through. The bills that didn’t pass Congress–and the ones that did.
I’ve seen plenty of mountains stay right where they are. And it’s not so much that I believe in the strength of my own faith, but I would stake my life on the faith of some of the folks I’ve seen praying against mountains that simply refuse to budge.
Jesus bumped up against one of his own mountains just days after teaching his disciples about the power of prayer. One of the most fervent scenes of prayer ever recorded is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knows death is approaching, and he throws himself down on the ground and begs God to spare him from the coming agony. . . . Though not, Jesus finally says, what I want, but what you want, Father.
This is hard, cruel irony. That Jesus assures his disciples that their prayers can move mountains . . . and then Jesus’ own deepest desire, expressed to God in prayer, is not fulfilled.
So what do we do with Jesus’ teaching on prayer here in the final days before his crucifixion? We, cannot, I think, claim the power of prayer without also accepting the responsibility—which means that, like Jesus, our prayers are ultimately for God’s will to be done—not our own.
But still, Jesus does say that our prayers can move mountains. And what do we do with that? How do we understand it?
I don’t know if Jesus was looking at the Mount of Olives, referencing the last days; or if he was pointing to Herod’s palace sitting high atop a mountain, with that little half-mountain next to it; or if Bartholomew’s eyes were starting to glaze over and Jesus wanted to wake him up with this extreme, exaggerated, example. Any of these things–even all of them–could have been in Jesus’ mind as he taught his followers that Tuesday morning.
But perhaps we don’t have to be familiar with the geography or the Jewish folklore or the rhetorical tricks to understand this passage. Perhaps Jesus just means what he says. And perhaps this is not so much a command, but a permission.
Maybe Jesus is giving us permission to pray for the ridiculous and see what happens. You know, ridiculous things like a mountain throwing itself into the sea. . . . ridiculous things like lame people walking . . . like blind people seeing . . . like lepers’ skin being restored.
Maybe Jesus wants us to know that we can be bold before God with our requests, no matter how ridiculous they seem . . . ridiculous like storms suddenly calm . . . like demons sent into a herd of pigs . . . like 5,000 people filling up on 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.
Our boldness in prayer is not for ourselves, but it is for the things that make for the Kingdom of God. Things that our world desperately needs—ridiculous things like compassion and cooperation and peace.
As the direction of this Holy Week journey begins to look more and more desperate, maybe now is the time to start praying for the ridiculous–for the things that could never, would never happen.
Ridiculous things like mountains throwing themselves into the sea . . . like God enfleshed walking around on earth . . . like dead people walking right out of their graves.