David A Davis
November 4, 2018
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They say it is a miracle; that it is a miracle of Jesus. That the cursing of the fig tree is a miracle of Jesus. If you look it up, if you google “the miracles of Jesus”, you will find listed there the cursing of the fig tree. It doesn’t seem like a miracle; a traditional miracle. It wasn’t much of a miracle for the fig tree. In Matthew, Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers right away, right there on the spot. Here in Mark, a couple verses later it’s the next morning when Jesus and the disciples pass by the tree and Peter sees the withered, cursed, tree. “Rabbi, look!” Peter says. It’s kind of negative for a miracle; maybe more like a plague or something. Jesus and the fig tree.
How about Jesus here? Getting all testy with the fig tree. Frustrated by a tree. Letting the tree have it. It’s not really the Jesus of the gospels we’ve come to expect. A more complicated Jesus. A more challenging Jesus. A more human Jesus. It says Jesus was hungry. He wasn’t just hungry, it sounds more like he was “hangry”. That is angry and hungry put together. It’s actually in the dictionary. Anger due to hunger. “Hangry”. Every parent of a toddler knows exactly what that means. It is the Jesus of the “snickers” commercial; needing a little something, something, a bit of sugar, something to tide him over. Clearly, it is the fully human part of Jesus. The cursing of the fig tree. It’s not very miracle like and it’s not very Jesus like.
A church member saw the sermon title and the sermon text this week on our website: “Leaves but no figs, Mark 11:12-14”. That morning, the member had been to their farm co-op to pick the family share. The farm has a grove of fig trees and though they are just about finished bearing fruit, folks were invited in to glean the last few figs. The member sent me the pictures that happened to have been taken just Tuesday morning. Still green, still lots of leaves, but only a few figs and they were way at the top, presumable because the low hanging fruit had been picked all through the season. So you had to pull the branches down to pick the last figs the tree had to offer. Sounds like a bit of work actually.
Jesus and the twelve had finally made it to Jerusalem after the long trek…up. The last part of the trip included the colt, and Palm branches, and shouts of “Hosanna”. They looked around Jerusalem a bit that evening and then headed out to Bethany for the night. The next morning, on the trip back to the city, Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree off in the distance. The tree had plenty of leaves but it wasn’t the season. Maybe Jesus thought there might still be a few figs up near the top. Turns out that would be no; leaves, but no figs. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!”, Jesus said mostly to himself and to the tree, but according to Mark, “His disciples heard it.” The disciples and those passing along the first of the oral tradition, and the earliest readers of the gospel, and early church forebearers, and the church in every age, and you and I, we all heard it. We all got wind of it. Jesus and his hunger and his cursing of the fig tree.
They all heard it and they even called it a miracle. Which is kind of interesting. A couplet of verses that points to Jesus’ humanity and everyone wants to preserve his divinity by calling it a miracle. Yes, Jesus and the fully God part is always the harder part to fathom but the fully human part is always the more challenging or discomforting part for the believer. That Jesus would lower himself to talk to the Samaritan Woman, that he would not come right away when Lazarus was dying, that he would allow the woman with the expensive perfume to anoint his feet, that he would beg God to not have him go through with the suffering and death part, that he would compare the Canaanite woman begging for her daughter to be healed to a dog, that he would be hungry and frustrated and angry and curse a fig tree. Jesus must have been hoping he didn’t really say that out loud. But the disciples heard it, and yes it is true, when it comes to life in the gospel, when it comes to a gospel life, words matter.
In the flow of Mark’s gospel, the cursing of the fig tree and Jesus and the disciples walking past the withered tree the next morning, the story of the fig tree bookends, it frames, Mark’s telling of Jesus cleansing of the temple. The cleansing of the temple is right in between the cursing of the fig tree and Peter pointing to the withered tree the next morning. You remember the story of the money-changers right in the temple and the selling, the marking up of the price on the necessary animals to be sacrificed in temple worship. Jesus tossing tables and chairs and shouting that they have made the house of prayer into a den of robbers. In the literary form of Mark, chapter 11, the fruitless fig tree and the religious institutional corruption kind of meld together. Jesus’ hunger and frustration and the cursing that comes from Jesus toward the tree foreshadows his anger and the tossing of tables and his indictment of the temple leaders.
But I have to tell you, I’m not comfortable going down that temple cleansing road this week. That’s why I didn’t even read it. I’m not willing to lift up a text that has been historically used by Christians to stereotype, characterize, and blame the Jewish people. Because yes, parts of the gospel have fed the seeds of antisemitism since the beginning and Christians ought to just stop and confess and lament that this week rather than reach for some kind of timeless takeaway from first century religious practices that too often comes with a self-righteous superiority and an overly negative view of the Jewish people and their traditions; a sinful arrogance not justified but covered up by the dark side of theology for centuries.
I would rather linger with the fig tree, and with leaves and fruit for a while. Here in Mark, when Peter points out the fig tree now withered to Jesus, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘be taken up and thrown into the sea’, and if you not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Standing there next to the withered tree, Jesus strikes a familiar gospel tone and teaches about faith, prayer, and forgiveness. It’s a little “Sermon on the Mount moment” there by the dead tree. Complete with the rhetorical flare, and preacher’s license of mountains moving, and lasting affirmations of life in the kingdom of God. Faith. Prayer. Forgiveness. Standing next to the now fruitless fig tree, Jesus preaches about, riffs on, lifts up, points to, extols, celebrates, the fruit of a faith-filled kingdom life. Faith. Prayer. Forgiveness. The tree bears no fruit, but you, O my people, O my children, O my followers, you bear the fruit of God’s mercy and grace!
The fig tree had no fruit to offer when Jesus was hungry that day. But think of all the fruit bearers in the gospel that Jesus acknowledges, lifts up, extols, celebrates. All those who give testimony to a faith-filled kingdom life, even here in the short gospel of Mark. The friends who worked so hard to lower the paralyzed man down through the hole they dug in the roof. Jairus, the synagogue leader who repeatedly begged Jesus to heal his daughter. The woman with the hemorrhage in the crowd who believed that if she just touched Jesus’ clothes, she would be made well. Yes, that Syrophoenician woman who boldly, courageously, found her voice; “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Blind Bartimaeus who refused to stay quiet but all the more loudly cried out for mercy. And the widow, the poor widow, the widow with the two copper coins; Jesus turned to the twelve and told them to look at her, be grateful for her, she put in more than everyone else. She was giving her all. She put in her whole life. Jesus was frustrated by the lack of fruit on that fig tree even as he spends the whole gospel pointing to, bearing witness to, expressing gratitude for, the lives of the saints who bear the fruit of faith.
I will not soon forget what the Rabbi of the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill said to Anderson Cooper Monday night. It was the eve of the first of the funerals for those brutally murdered in Pittsburgh while at worship. The Rabbi was asked about the tone, the content, the themes of the upcoming services. The question was clearly looking for an edginess or an anger or a response to the evil and the tragedy. The Rabbi sounded just a bit surprised by the question and he said that they would do what they always do at a funeral. “We give thanks to God for sharing life and we celebrate life and we remember.” He went on to say there will be no anger, no hatred, no outcry. Only grief, gratitude, remembrance, and celebration of each one lost and the absolute gift they were to all who knew them. In other words, according to the Rabbi, at the Tree of Life, they were going to spend the week giving thanks to God for the fruit.
Cathy and I attended Shabbat services yesterday at the Jewish Center of Princeton. During his sermon, Rabbi Feldman, barely holding back his tears, said that the descriptions of the lives of the 11 killed made him think of folks in his congregation: greeters, matriarchs, doctors, life long members. They are the folks sitting in every synagogue on Saturday and every church on Sunday. Or to use the language of our tradition, they are part of the great cloud of witnesses, the saints in every congregation. Those who share the fruit of a life in God: faith, prayer, forgiveness. Or as the Apostle Paul painted the fruit in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses; those who have come before and those who will surely come after. Yes, Jesus cursed the fig tree that had no fruit to offer, but he spent his life bearing witness to the fruit of a life in God. He gave his life for that fruit. That you and I might be fed, nourished here, so that we might bear the harvest of our fruit out there.