WARNING: This post will not be encouraging and might even frustrate you a good bit. It did me.
As is often the case lately, I want to write this morning, but I am struggling to find the words or, more accurately, words that I think would be acceptable. Then I turned to today’s Morning Prayer and came upon the Gospel reading. Mark 11:12ff is one of the most troubling Gospel passages I know.
Mark 11:12-26 (NRSV)
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
… [cleansing of the Temple]
20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ 22 Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
25 ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’
There are a number of things that frustrate me about this passage. Let’s start at the beginning.
- Jesus didn’t know that it wasn’t the season for figs. Not a big deal and maybe an itinerant laborer would not know the seasons of fruits, but I am guessing anyone in that society would. Odd.
- Jesus was so upset that the fig tree wasn’t bearing fruit (outside of its fruit-bearing season) that he cursed it. Wha?
- This then becomes a lesson on faith. Jesus declared that no one should ever eat the fruit of that tree and bam it is “withered away to its roots.”
- That lesson on faith is so easily misunderstood and misapplied (thank you Joel Osteen, et al).
I do not have a lot of answers to my concerns and questions and I never have, even when I regularly taught the Gospels in class. We might suggest some sort of redaction history that has at its root this odd story of Jesus cursing the fig tree and then wraps it up in a tidy lesson of faith. That doesn’t particularly help and one would assume that, if this were the case, it would somehow have made sense to the redactor. Thus many view the cursed and withered fig tree as a metaphor for Israel. Bracketing the cleansing of the Temple, the fig tree is Israel, “each appears to be thriving; neither is bearing the desired fruit; both are condemned by Jesus.” ((Williamson, Lamar. Mark. Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press, 1983, p. 206))
That is fine as far as the imagery is concerned, but that isn’t the lesson that Mark takes from this event. He uses it to offer the disciples and the readers a lesson on faith and forgiveness. The latter does not pose a difficulty to me, I understand the conception (even if there are some troubling aspects to it) that we ought to forgive others before we come to God in prayer, leaving our own burdens and pettiness behind as we enter into worship. But this faith aspect…
I have written about this before, even before our son died. The idea that literally ((and I mean that in its literal sense)) anything we ask will be ours if we do not have “doubt in our heart” is problematic if not downright dangerous. I cannot tell you that when I prayed with and for Mack before he was taken onto that helicopter that I did not have doubts and fears. Of course I did, but I prayed with him and as the helicopter took off I looked up and yelled “Lord, protect my child!” If sincerity is the “magic key” that unlocks God’s healing, if being faithful to God and believing in his power to heal and to raise the dead is what brings all prayers to fulfillment then Mack should be alive and healthy today. For that matter, my mother should not have fought Lupus for these 50 years.
I won’t pretend to have any answers, let along “all” of them. This morning, as most, I woke with sadness and frustration, looking for comfort. The Daily Office gave me Mark 11 instead.
Perhaps the hardest part of grieving, especially a loss so sudden and to one so young, what I call “agentless injustice,” is that you have to learn to stop thinking about it. We never stop remembering Mack, loving him, and missing him. But at some point one has to let it go. We have to move forward, in faith and otherwise, and trust that as we put one foot in front of the other, each will find solid ground. “Just keep swimming.” Even when we don’t have the answers we would like, we have to keep moving forward. When I do, I have found joy. It no longer looks the same, it is tinged with a color that cannot be washed away, but it is joy nonetheless.
10 thoughts on “Of fig trees and faith”
I don’t disagree with a word of your excellent thoughts shared herein. What bugs me about Mark’s presentation of the tree is how he uses it as a frame for the cleansing of the Temple. (Something Mark does all the time = a1-b-a2, where narratives a and b interpret and comment on each other.) Mark, more than the other gospel writer, interprets the tree as a metaphor for the Temple. It seems most… unkind… toward what exactly? Judaism? temple worship? “Not producing fruit. Must be cursed. WIll wither and die”.
You point out another dimension of the text I hadn’t noticed before, the way Mark connects this to (c) “faith” and (d) forgiveness. We often wonder if such texts that address “faith” really mean whatever we ask for God will do. Luke seems to mitigate(?) the range of what we ask for / what God does to “give the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps what Mark is talking about is faith that God forgives? Perhaps Mark interprets the “mountain” as sin? failure to understand? failure to follow Jesus on the Way?
I have not fully thought this through, but I believe this fig tree is linked to the tree of knowledge in Eden. I also believe that it withered to be used as the crosses for the thieves crucified with Jesus. Jesus’ cross was the tree of life and He was its fruit and the other two crosses were the tree of knowledge. Adam and the woman clothed themselves with fig leaves, so available at the time of their sin. Jesus was crucified in a garden. The link between Jesus’ crucifixion and Eden has man other element, and there is also a strong link to the Temple because Jesus’ cross came from a doorway in the Temple.
Grace and peace,
Thank you for your response. There is nothing, however, in the Bible to suggest any of what you have said. In particular, the legend that the cross was made from a door in the Temple is a particularly perfidious anti-Semitism that has no basis in fact.
It is understandable that we try and find meaning in each and every tidbit of information that we have in the Bible. Connecting one section to the other is common and the rabbis were particularly adept at it. But I do not see the value in it in such an instance.
Sorry to hear about the loss of your son. I have lost 2 of my 3 sons, Peter and Timothy (and my wife also had 2 miscarriages) the most recent Jul 4, 2012AD when Tim was 21 years old. Time helps, but some pain (along with increasing peace and joy) remain.
Things like “the reason for the fig tree” are hidden in the Scripture so that the rulers of this age would not be aware of God’s plan which was revealed in the Bible (1Co 2:6-8), but God’s plan was obvious to those who could discern, e.g. Jesus.
I believe that the events of the passion and resurrection including the fig tree are the kind of things that Jesus was discussing with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24).
Also, Jesus’ cross came from a doorway in the Temple not because of a myth, but because of the Scripture. Biblically it had to be, because Jesus is the passover lamb (1Co 5:7-8) and the blood of the passover lamb must be put on the door post of His house (Ex 12:7, 13, 22) see
http://www.scripturescholar.com/JesusOurPassover.pdf pages 5-8. I wrote briefly last night because it was late and you did not seem to have any idea understanding of the why of the fig tree, I wrote to stimulate fruitful meditation. If you reject my thoughts it matters only in that there is a great world of depth of insight that you may never recognize and understand regarding the events of the passion and resurrection.
The only way to recognize the full story behind why Paul says, 1Cor 15:3-4 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 That he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
What does Paul mean by according to the Scriptures which made its way into the Nicene Creed?
How is the death and resurrection on the third day revealed in the Scriptures? I argue that it shows up in nearly every story and passage, but it is obscured the objects, places, names, times, etc. recorded in the Bible but greatly expanded when one realizes that they were being fulfilled in Christ (Matt 5:17-18). How is Eden fulfilled? How is passover fulfilled? How is the temple fulfilled? How is Noah’s ark fulfilled? How is the ark of the Covenant fulfilled, etc.?
Grace and peace,
I have heard/read that the explanation behind the fig tree passage refers to immature, edible fruits known as taksh, or olunthos, which are ‘unripe’ or pre-ripe’ figs. Apparently a tree that had leaves was expected to have taksh, which preceded the season for ‘actual’ figs. If a tree had leaves but no taksh, it would not bear real figs. In this passage, Jesus found none even though the tree had leaves and proceeded to curse the tree.
He went on to the temple and drove the money changers out. Ostensibly the money changers were permitted to be there by the chief priests.
The sermon I heard alluded that the metaphor was not Israel, but the religious system of that day, who – like the fig tree – seemed to promise something but were in fact barren and could produce no real fruit.
Later, on the way back, when Jesus is ‘explaining’ to his disciples, he tells them to ‘have faith in God’, he’s not referring to the cursing of the tree, he’s referring to how not to live a barren life. He’s telling them to believe in God’s goodness.
With regard to the mountain, I’m not certain, but I believe Jesus is referring to a specific mountain (hence the word ‘this’). I am unsure if he is referring to the Mount of Olives, OR the holy mountain mentioned in Isaiah 56:7 where he quoted earlier regarding the house of prayer (which then makes sense when taking Mark 11:24-26 in sequence because he’s talking about prayer.)
I’m afraid I don’t have all the answers either.
An alternative to the ‘mountain’ specified could be the Temple Mount – theologically it would have made more sense since it symbolized the religious system of that day, which Jesus had issues with, and then in the later verses of Mark 11, he’s explaining to his disciples that they no longer need to go through a priest to pray.
Thank you for your clear and truthful evaluation of the Cursing of the fig Tree in Mark in light of what happened to your Mom and your son. Always stay honest in your prayer, that’s what lamentation psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures are all about.
With regard the cursing itself, I have been wrestling with this text since 1969 when taking a course in NT Studies at Saint Louis University with Jesuit Father Donald Murphy whose practice it was to hit us with the most enigmatic texts possible for exegesis.
My, and only my, hypothesis is that the author of what is called the Gospel of Mark, wrote under considerable pressure and danger. Emperor Nero had recently blamed the young Christian sect as the cause of the conflagration of half the city of Rome. He had put the leaders of this sect to death, Peter and Paul in the persecution in 64AD, and sent his armies into Palestine in the War of 66-70AD under the leadership of Vespasian, who later would succeed the crazed Nero as Emperor.
In Israel, the revolution which had been brewing for decades coalesced under the leadership of the so-called “Zealots”. Even some of Jesus’ chosen disciples had apparently been Zealots before hearing about and following Jesus who taught that we must forgive those who wrong us and love our enemies, a difficult teaching for anyone.
The War was seen as principally between the Jewish and the Romans, but in the first century, even in Rome, many Jews had begun to follow Jesus without renouncing their Jewish beliefs and practices. Thus, in 66-70AD, Christians were caught in a dilemma wherein they were suspected by both Zealots and Romans.
When Christians asked Mark literally, “What would Jesus tell us to do in this predicament?” I believe Mark chose to tell them his own interpretation of what Jesus would say but through the use of symbols and code to prevent increasing the intensity of the persecutions.
First of all, the Zealots were called by several different names throughout the events of the war and its completion. One of the references was to “lestai” meaning a guerilla, a warrior, a bandit or commonly a “thief”. At the crucifixion of Jesus, significantly the two crucified beside him are “lestai”.
Another name by which they were called was “Sikarii”, a word which comes from the illegal carrying of a large sharp dagger, a “sika” by which these Zealots would assassinate Roman soldiers, High Priests, Tax Collectors, and Prostitutes, all of whom were dedicated to making life for the occupying Romans more pleasant.
To keep this short as possible, the Author of Mark chose to use another word which sounds almost exactly like the word “sika” in its place to spin a story which would express to these desperate Christians what Jesus wanted of them now, The word the author chose was “syka”. It differs from the former only in its second letter and in pronunciation as “long e” differs from french “u”.’
Now reread the fig tree cursing as if you had never heard it before with a “Zealot” reference for every “fig”, and reevaluate Jesus’ admonition to “forgive anyone who has offended you etc…, and recognize that prayer is not used to curse anyone, but that you must pray to God before taking up arms.
Lastly, consider that the “thieves” in the Temple may very well not be the merchants and money changers at all, but the Zealots, when in 70 AD the Romans were about to take Jerusalem, the Zealots transformed the Great Temple of Herod the Great into an armed fortress which held out until August after which it was leveled.
To understand Scripture do read it, but also, and very importantly consult the best scholarship available for help.
Off the top of your head interpretations of biblical texts fill the AM airwaves from coast to coast. Sometimes they might even find ther ways into Blogs like this. Please pray for me if what I have said here seems to be one of those.
Thanks for reading this and keep the faith.