Did Jesus really get that mad at a fig tree?
Hespeler, 26 November, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Mark 11:12-24, Matthew 7:13-20, Joel 2:21-27
s that in the Bible? It is one of those questions that you just have to ask sometimes when you read this book. And few passages elicit such a response more easily than the one we read this morning. It is a story that seems odd on so many levels. Jesus is just walking along one bright morning, he sees a fig tree in the distance, sees that it has some leaves on it, and feels a little rumble in his stomach. He is hungry so he goes over to see whether it has any fruit on it.
Now, mind you, it is not exactly the right season for figs, but I guess if you’re really hungry (as I guess Jesus was) you can hardly blame a guy for hoping that there might be a few early fruits. I mean, who hasn’t been there: you open the cupboard and hope against hope, when you see the old Twinkie box shoved up in the back corner, that there will be just one golden cake still hidden inside. You can hope, but when you discover that the box is empty how do you react?
You might feel a momentary surge of anger at whichever member of your household took the last cake and failed to throw out the empty box and put Twinkies on the grocery list again. But, thankfully, most of us can deal with that anger without it turning into a homicidal rage. The really shocking thing in this story in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus essentially goes into an arboricidal rage over his failure to get a snack. For the crime of not bearing a fruit (at a time when fig trees don’t generally bear fruit anyway), this particular fig tree is condemned by Jesus to death. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” he cries out against it.
And just in case anyone thinks that this is a joke or a metaphor, we all get to return to the very same spot on the path between Bethany and Jerusalem the very next morning to see that the same fig tree is now “withered away to its roots.” It is, in other words, not just a little bit sick but so completely dead that it is quite clear that no one ever will eat its fruit again.
I have heard a lot of people stumble over this passage, and not surprisingly! The initial impression that the story gives is that Jesus is behaving like a someone having a temper tantrum – using whatever power he has available to him (and he has a lot of power) to destroy something that has given him the slightest bit of irritation. So what are we supposed to do with this passage – accept that Jesus had a thing against fig trees and move on?
Well, actually no, I don’t think so. In fact there is a whole lot going on in this passage that we miss. In fact, I would even say that there is a vital message for the church today hidden in it – one that I pray that we do not miss.ld even say that there is a vital message for the church today hidden in it
One reason why we miss the message is because we forget what we are reading when we read the Gospel of Mark. We assume that we are reading a history book or a journalistic account of the events of Jesus’ life. I believe that Mark would have been appalled to know that people would read his book in such a way. Mark was writing a gospel, not a mere historical account and so the author was trying to communicate a whole lot more than just what happened. He was trying to explain who Jesus was and what he had come to accomplish and, in order to do that, he did not hesitate to use common literary tricks to get his message across.
For example, there are a number of times in his Gospel when Mark starts telling one story about something that happened to Jesus and then, all of a sudden in the middle of the story, everything gets interrupted by something else that happens, seemingly out of the blue. (For example, there’s this story when Jesus gets called on to go to the house of a man named Jairus and heal his daughter but gets interrupted on the way there when a sick woman touches the hem of his garment. Mark 8:40-56) Then, once the interruption has been dealt with, the original story resumes and is concluded. (For example, Jesus goes on and heals the girl.) This doesn’t just happen once in this gospel but several times. And, if you read this gospel closely, you start to wonder what on earth is going on. And the closer you look, the more likely you are to conclude that this has not just happened by accident but that the author has gone out of his way to tell his story in this way.
But why would Mark choose to do that? Is it just a style thing? Or is this one of the ways in which Mark deliberately chose to get his message across? It seems to be the latter because if you look closely at each instance where Mark does this, there is special meaning being communicated. In particular, in every case, there is always a strange connection between the two stories that are interrupting each other. In other words, you cannot completely understand the beginning and the end of the story without understanding the interrupting part in the middle and vice versa.
The passage we read this morning is a perfect example of this storytelling technique. Mark starts off with the story of Jesus and the fig tree, but then he gets interrupted by the story of Jesus and the temple. After cursing the fig tree, Jesus goes down to the temple and starts causing quite a commotion, driving out sellers, overturning tables and even stopping people from carrying things through the temple. It is only after all of this is over that we return to the story of the fig tree.
Therefore, if Mark is using this pair of stories in the same way that he uses the other interrupting stories, we should expect that there should be some important connection between the story of the fig tree and the story of what happens in the temple – that he has a message that he is trying to get across by putting these two stories together in the way that he does.
So what might that message be? Is the connection, perhaps, that Jesus was really grumpy after not having any breakfast and not finding any figs on the fig tree and that that’s what put him in a bad mood which led to the incident at the temple? No, I don’t think so. I think that Mark has something much more serious to say and that we ought to pay attention to it.
What if the fig tree and the temple are one and the same thing? That is to say, what if the fig tree is a metaphor for the temple. You see, when we read the story of Jesus in the temple, we often focus on the mechanics of what he does. He seems to be attacking the commercial activities that are taking place in the temple and so, down through the years, Christians have been inclined to apply this story by limiting or being very careful about anything that looks like commercial activity in the church. There are churches, for example, that will absolutely forbid any sort of exchange of money for services or goods within the sanctuary. We figure that we can escape the condemnation that Jesus pronounces on the temple by avoiding any activities that look vaguely similar to what was going on in the temple that day. But what if that isn’t enough? What if Jesus was getting at something deeper than specific activities?
If the fig tree represents the temple, Jesus’ anger at the tree (which is irrational on the surface) makes a whole lot more sense. Jesus isn’t especially angry at the fig tree for its failure to produce fruit in a season when it shouldn’t produce anyways. He is angry at the temple, not just for particular activities that are taking place there, but for its general failure to bear fruit.in the temple, but for it'uce fruit. He is angry at the temple, not just for particular activiti I also suspect that Jesus’ curse,curse "suspect that Jesus'ruit.in the temple, but for it'uce fruit. He is angry at the temple, not just for particular activiti “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” is directed at the temple more than the tree. This seems especially obvious when you realize that Mark wrote this Gospel very soon after the temple in Jerusalem had been completely destroyed at a time when it was quite clear that no one would ever worship or eat from its fruit again. Mark is telling his readers that, just as Jesus could curse a fig tely destroy and no one would ever worship "ivititree to death and it would actually die a day later, he did curse the temple to death and it was destroyed forty years later.
But what if this is not just about some ancient temple? What if it is about the church and the challenges we face today? Think of in this way: Imagine that Jesus came today to St. Andrew’s Hespeler and, on the way in, had a run in with Andrew'ut the church and the challenges we face today?would ever worship "iviti a fruit tree. I’m not going to say a fig tree because we’re hardly familiar with them. So let’s say that he had a run in with an apple tree that tempted him with its leaves but disappointed him with a lack of apples. If that apple tree was us, what would it say about our church and how Jesus might react to us were he in our midst today?
In other words, what fruit might Jesus be looking for from us and from the church in general today and would he find it or not? We could talk for a long time about that question and I know that there would be many different opinions. My personal feeling is that the fruit that Jesusow that there would be many diffeerent y and would he find it or not?hh is looking for is a church that makes a place for all people. At least, that’s what I hear in Jesus’ call for the temple to be “a house of prayer for all the nations.”
One thing I think that that especially means in our modern context is that the church needs to be a place of safety for the victims of this world. If our churches are not a place where victims of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and other similar crimes can feel the freedom to tell their stories and can be believed, for example, we have a real problem. And sadly, when today I hear some church leaders standing up for abusers instead of victims, it makes me think that Jesus would get very angry indeed with at least some of our leaders!
But I suspect that there is even more fruitfulness that Jesus would look for. He would ask for a church that is involved in actions that positively impact the lives of people in the community. After all, didn’t Jesus often speak of how the kingdom of God would be found when the hungry were fed, the naked clothed and the strangers welcomed? I know that we could always do more to step up to such challenges, but I would say that at St Andrew’s we do pretty well at marking such activities a priority. Let us press on and always be open to what more Jesus is calling us to do.
I also suspect that we have an indication in this story of what Jesus might see as a sign that a church is failing in the fruitfulness department. It is true that the activities that he disrupted in the temple were those activities that were focused on the financial support of the institution. The changing of money and selling of sacrificial animals was an essential part of the financial life of the temple. After all, you can’t maintain a huge religious institution like the temple without some revenue sources. Jesus can’t argue against the mere presence of money within the temple precincts but what he seems to be complaining about is the fact that the search for revenue in the temple has become all consuming and saying that a concern for it is what has been pushing the temple away from its primary task and that was why it had become so unfruitful.
I personally don’t think that Jesus actually got so mad at a fig tree one day that he cursed it to death. I suspect that Mark took some of the things that Jesus said about unfruitful trees and the power of prayer and turned those sayings into a kind of living parable – knowing that it would be much more powerful that way.
But, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus did it or not – the point in Mark including this little episode was to teach us something much more important about the temple and (I suspect) the church. It is a reminder to us that Jesus is looking to us to produce fruit in this world, that that is why we are here. Everything else that we do – all of the things that keep the operation going – are here to support and enable that fruitfulness. Will Jesus be gracious and patient with us when we sometimes fail to bear that fruit? I do not doubt that he will. But if lose we sight completely of that need to produce the fruit of righteousness – especially if we are distracted by money matters – well, it seems that Jesus could have a bit of a temper… would be much more powerful trees and the power of prayer and turned those sayings into a kind of living parable -- kn