Some time ago, one of our parishioners asked me about the passage in Mark 11 in which Jesus curses a fig tree and it dies. I had hoped to write on this sooner, but moving house at the beginning of the month followed by a week of conferences delayed things a bit. Subscribing to the adage, “better late than never,” here is my reflection:
The story of Jesus’ cursing of a fig tree occurs in the second half of Mark chapter eleven, following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The day after, he goes out to Bethany and comes upon a fig tree in leaf. The tree however, has no fruit. Jesus curses the tree and says to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Jesus then returns to Jerusalem, goes up to the Temple and overturns the tables of the money-changers in what has become known as the story of “the cleansing of the Temple.” The next morning the disciples and Jesus pass by the fig tree again and Peter points out that it is withered to its roots. Jesus then proceeds to give a short “sermon” on faith and prayer.
Just what is happening in this complicated text? I must admit, that I had not originally intended to comment on it. Upon, reflection though, it not only illustrates a number of key Markan themes, but also gives us a nice example of Mark’s literary style and structuring. The “book-ending” of the story of the cleansing of the Temple between the story of the cursing of the fig tree has been referred to as a “literary sandwich.” Mark does this on a number of occasions. It is generally an indication that he intends the two stories to interpret each other. So, just what are we to make of this “literary sandwich?”
Let us consider for a moment what the two stories have in common. Both immediately follow his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, perhaps indicating something of the coming kingdom, namely, an element of judgment for those who do not receive him.
Let us ask what it is about the fig tree that he finds so objectionable. The tree is in full leaf, but it does not bear fruit. It looks healthy, productive and verdant. But is it? And what of the Temple? Let us remember that during the time of Jesus, an impressive multi-year reconstruction project was underway. It had been inaugurated as part of a massive building programme throughout Judea by Herod the Great. The edifice was fantastic. It was meant to be a place of great piety and devotion. But was it? Was it like the fig tree that appeared healthy and verdant, but bore no fruit?
It has been suggested by many scholars that Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree is an enacted parable in which Jesus not only offers caution about the Temple establishment, but indeed passes judgment on it. Like the fig tree, so too with the Temple, not all is as it should be. Appearances are deceiving. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing (to borrow from one of the Matthean sayings of Jesus – Matthew 7:15). Of what sin is the Establishment guilty? Mark tells us that as Jesus approaches the fig tree he is hungry, but it has no fruit. The people of God are hungry -- hungry for the living God. The people of God are hungry – hungry for righteousness and justice. The people of God are hungry -- hungry for peace and reconciliation. Mark seems to be telling us that in all these things the Establishment failed.
This would seem to be very bad news for us in the Establishment we call Church. Dow we not recognize ourselves in this struggle? Do we not see ourselves, within our great edifices, failing to offer hope, failing to offer justice, failing to offer peace, failing to offer the living God? Are we any better? Has the Church fared any better in changing the world than any other establishment in any other time or place?
Well, as God is our judge, God alone will know. But I do wish to suggest that there is good news in the passage. Whereas Jesus cursed the tree and caused it to wither, likewise he cleansed the Temple. Of course the Temple is not simply to be understood as the physical temple in first century Jerusalem, but stands for all human institutions that seek to do the work of God but periodically fail in the task. He prophesied to it. He called it to account. He cleansed it. And in doing so he offered hope. Hope is found not in our own works but in the work of God in Christ. We can work for the kingdom, and so we should; but as St. Paul said, not I but Christ in me – the hope of glory. The tree was cursed, but we are cleansed. God is sovereign.
Finally, Mark concludes the story with Jesus’ saying on faith and prayer. “Have faith in God,” he says. This is the kind of faith that moves mountains, because it is not our faith but the faith of Christ. It is the faith of Christ that moves the mountains of our lives and rolls the stones away from the tombs in which we are buried. What is more, it is the faith of Christ that calls to account, transforms and cleanses our human institutions. What should be judged as failures are redeemed by a loving God.
How does the story end? With words of forgiveness: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses.” Forgiveness. He does not curse the fruitless vine of our lives but instead offers cleansing and forgiveness – to us as individuals and to us as a people. Thus, we stand not alone, withered to the root as if cursed, but as a temple to the Holy Spirit, enlivened through his abiding presence and through his faith, by his grace, offering his words of hope to a broken world.
c. 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves