Here it is:

“I tell you then, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)

Mince (Scots) = nonsense

This is mince, surely; a simple untruth that anyone who has ever suffered can refute. It denies the most basic facts of life. The young woman who had just given birth to her first child, praying that she would survive the leukaemia with which she had just been diagnosed, died within three months. The hundreds of people praying for David Haining to be spared death as a hostage of ISIS, learned of his decapitation, or saw it. Over 52 years of ministry I have often prayed for parishioners to be spared harsh suffering, only to acknowledge that they were not.

And I suppose I must add, Jesus of Nazareth who prayed that he might not undergo crucifixion, ended up on an execution stake. Apologists for Jesus will point out that he asked to be spared but also for God’s will to be done. Ah, yes, if in the end all our prayers are guarded by “nevertheless, your will be done,” there will never be any problem, for whatever happens can be called the will of God. Obviously, that procedure makes nonsense of prayer, and especially of Jesus’ teaching above. If he just meant, pray for God’s will and you’ll get it, he should have said so. Moreover the interpretation of every human disaster as God’s will, doesn’t do much for the reputation of God.

Well then, maybe the words don’t mean what they appear to mean? Maybe biblical scholars can help us solve the problem?

The context of Jesus’ words is the story of him cursing a fig tree for being fruitless and returning the next day to find it withered. Between the cursing and its result is the story of Jesus’ attack on the temple traders. Obviously Mark is using the fig tree as an image of the temple, which in Mark’s day had been destroyed. When Jesus said that faith could move “this mountain” he was doubtless meaning the temple mount. It’s possible that the teaching about prayer is primarily meant to reflect the prophetic action -parable of the fig tree: the temple was destroyed.

That however takes us away from the plain meaning of Jesus’ words.

Ah, well, maybe they are not the words of Jesus, but of Mark, or of Mark’s source? It is always possible that what the Gospel writers attribute to Jesus is a creation of the tradition they received. All scholars reckon with the possibility that the representation of Jesus’ actions and words in the gospels reflects varying traditions and their own creativity. Nevertheless, Jesus’ confidence in prayer is well-attested throughout the gospels.

The circle of the sun takes in the arms of the cross. Defeat and victory are simultaneous realities.

But no other account of his teaching on prayer states this confidence quite as baldly as Mark. For example, Matthew who composed his gospel using a copy of Mark’s, recounts the same teaching in slightly different words:

“If you have faith, everything you ask for in prayer, you will receive.”

Matthew obviously considered Mark’s bit about “believing you have received it”, cut it out, and opted for a more general assurance, which still asserts confidence in prayer but leaves room for interpretation. But can I think that all the prayers mentioned at the start of this blog, went unanswered because they lacked faith? Surely not. So, although different, Matthew’s version is no more acceptable.

Back to Mark, then. It seems he thought the instruction to believe one had received the thing prayed for, was important. Could it be something I haven’t ever done?

I prayed for my brother that his cancer would be cured, but he died of it. What would it mean for me to have believed that I had received what I asked for?

So, I guess, that while it was perfectly evident to me that he was dying painfully of cancer, I would have held in my mind the counterfactual conviction that he was being healed and would live, even if this conviction was certainly not in his mind. That seems mince and yet it does bear some resemblance to what was in my mind. I do believe that death can be healing and that we will have life in God. The teaching given by Jesus in Mark brings close together the worldly fact and the heavenly counter-fact, so that the contradiction is stark, as it is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus: the women go his tomb to be told, “He is not here, he is risen.” In my faith, the dead body and the risen body are equal parts of the one reality; we are at one and the same time in the material universe and in God. There is no room in my faith for conjuring tricks: my brother died and we cremated his body. Jesus died and his body is in Palestine. People really suffer but their prayer for healing is being answered.

The version of Jesus’ teaching given by Mark emphasises the role of human imagination: as I pray I have to imagine the vast universe with all its suffering as included in the reality of God, and to believe I have been answered. Of course it may be mince, and often my doubt is so painful I wish he hadn’t said it.

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