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.”1
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 literally2 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.