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Cursing the Fig Tree/Temple

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

July 23, 2023

David Collins



I’m really excited about today’s sandwich. One, because it is one of the best examples of Markan sandwiches in the whole gospel, and two because it’s one of the few times in the Bible that I can absolutely identify with Jesus.


I’ve killed a fig tree before.


It was three years ago, in the height of the lockdown for Covid-19, and Megan and I, like many of you, became incredibly interested, some might say, far-TOO-interested, in house plants.


We were sitting at home, looking at social media, and suddenly, our feeds became dominated by the most alluring pictures. Look at that succulent. Wow, those stems. Wow, those leaves. Is that variegated?


Since we’ve been happily married since the year 2000, we’d never experienced swiping right before. But now, here we were. “Hello, Jade.” (Swipe). You know that Jade’s a plant, right? Not a girl. Sometimes you all come in and out of consciousness while I’m up here, and I didn’t want you to wake up and be like, “What’s he talking about?”


But then we found the ultimate house plant. The one to have.


The fiddle-leaf fig.



The biggest problem was that everyone else wanted them too. And stores were having trouble keeping them in stock, because they were having trouble keeping everything in stock. Maybe people were using the enormous leaves for toilet paper, I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend it, but people were getting desperate.


So we turned where people turn when they can’t find what they need through normal channels: Craigslist. We didn’t take out an ad or anything, but we found someone who did. So we drove like 15 miles to a part of town we wouldn’t normally go. The person selling them wouldn’t come out of her house, so we left the money under the mat, and selected her finest fig tree.


We brought her home, gave her the best spot in the house with filtered light, but not too much. I bought special food especially formulated for the fiddle leaf fig.


And she died in like a month.


I thought I was taking great care of her. But it turns out, Megan thought so too. We smothered that poor plant. And we’ve done it again and again. We even killed poor Jade.


We didn’t do it on purpose, though! Which is more than Jesus can say in our story today. But the fig tree he cursed was much more than just a distraction or a decoration.


The fig tree he cursed and killed was a symbol.


But still, the fact remains, and it’s a comfort to me, and I hope it is to many of you…It’s not a sin to kill a plant.


You can scratch that one right off your list of things to feel guilty about. Now let’s get to our scripture:


Mark 11:12 NRSV On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.


First, a little context. Mark has now gotten to the passion narrative of his gospel. The story of how Jesus came to Jerusalem and was set up, betrayed, and crucified. The first 11 verses of chapter 11 are Mark’s account of what we call the Triumphal Entry, and celebrate on Palm Sunday, except there are no palms in Mark and Jesus doesn’t so much enter Jerusalem triumphantly, as he does kind of lose track of time, the parade ends before he gets to Jerusalem, and then…let’s look at the previous verse.


Mark 11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


It kind of sounds like when you’re on vacation and the place you’re visiting has things that are really foreign to us as Americans. Like worker’s rights. Guaranteed lunch. Days off. And so we’re outside rattling doors and peering through windows. “I’m only here for 24 hours, so you should be available when I need you!” Although, to be fair, sometimes the hours are a little ridiculous. Open every other Tuesday from 2-4. Great.


What is really more likely here is that Jesus is planning what he’s going to do the next day. He’s making a mental map for the trouble he’s planning to cause. So he gets there late at night and scopes the place out. Then he and his disciples leave for the night, because really, who can afford rooms for twelve at the Jerusalem Hilton? They’ve got a great, cheap AirBnB in Bethany.


But it’s a hike! So…

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. (Mark 11:12-13)


When you see a fig tree in the Bible, it’s a lot different from seeing one at the store, or in someone’s house…not mine, it’s dead. But in the Bible, a fig-tree is a symbol. In fact, Bible scholar William Telford writes,


“On the whole, the Old Testament knows very little of non-symbolic trees…The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Age of Israel…are given - (from) the Garden of Eden, …(to) the coming Messianic Age….”


It matters that it’s a fig tree. If this story was about us, and not about Israel, it would be like if Jesus came upon a majestic eagle. You wouldn’t read that, and say, ‘Well, he clearly just happened upon an eagle.” No, it’s a symbol! This story about the fig tree is the bread wrapping around this sandwich about the Temple, which is the unmistakable symbol of Israel.


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. (Mark 11: 13-14)


We’ll find out later that the tree does die. (Matthew, in his gospel, has it shrivel up instantly. He doesn’t like sandwiches.) This is the only miracle in the passion section of Mark. And it’s a miracle of destruction where Jesus kills a poor innocent little tree. Again, not a sin! I’m so relieved.


Now I think that the most important detail here is that it was NOT the season for figs. On first glance, it makes Jesus sound…well, hangry. Like it’s a Snickers commercial. Figs aren’t even in season, but Jesus is so hungry that he curses this poor little tree.


If it had been the time for figs, and this little tree didn’t have any, then it would just be a sick tree, and you could either give it some care, or kill it. That’s actually the way Jesus tells it in Luke 13. The point of the story would be that when things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, you follow the logical steps to make them better.


To keep one bad apple from spoiling the bunch, you remove the bad apple. But what if the problem is with ALL apples? Okay, too many agricultural metaphors. We’ll get back to this, because it’s a sandwich. But hear in this that Jesus isn’t dealing with the tree as an individual tree, but as a symbol concerning what he does next.


Now we’ve arrived at the meat. The thing that Jesus did in all four Gospels that started the chain of events that lead to his execution.


It all started with what he did in the Temple. Now, the Temple was the center of Israel’s religious life. The law of Moses dictated the sacrifices that every person had to offer there in order to be right with God. If you’re reading the Bible with us this year, you read all that early on. You have to give a cow for this, or a goat for that. If you’re poor, you have can sacrifice a dove instead. People would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem once a year, or more, to make these sacrifices. But do you know what makes the journey a lot slower? Having to drag live stock along with you.


So instead, people would buy their sacrifices there. And since their law was also against graven images, they had to exchange their pagan money with images of Caesar on it, for temple money. The people who exchanged the money made their living off of the exchange rate, and those who sold the sacrificial animals did too. Things just cost money. This wasn’t a perversion of the way the Temple was supposed to run. This was the historical and agreed upon way that it all worked!


If you know what’s coming next, you may have heard it said that what Jesus was mad about the money changers making too much money off of what they did. If they’d only been okay with a modest profit, that would have been fine.


Luke and John even do that in their gospels. They had Mark to refer to when they wrote their accounts, and both of them pull the punch in the way that they tell this story. They make it sound like the only people Jesus was upset with were those who were doing the selling. Like they were fig trees with no fruit when it WAS the time for figs.


But that’s not the way it happened, according to Mark. Listen to this:


15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. (Mark 11:15-16)


Jesus wasn’t just mad at the people who were making their living from the temple. He was mad at everyone participating in the Temple economy. They were all tainted. They were all wrong. Luke and John both make leave room for the interpretation that if the money changers were charging a more reasonable fee, that business could go on as usual, but Mark doesn’t.


I think that’s why Mark tells us it wasn’t the season for figs. The fig tree was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. So was the Temple. And Jesus curses both.


In your Bible, it might have a header that says, Jesus Cleanses the Temple. But that’s a poor description of how it goes down here. Jesus occupies the Temple. He shuts it down. He is a one man strike. He doesn’t let any of the temple business happen while he’s there.


Why?


17 He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?

But you have made it a den of robbers.’


That’s a quote from Isaiah 56:7 mashed up with one from Jeremiah 7:11. That den of robbers quote is easy to associate with the money changers. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. The den isn’t the location where the robbery takes place. The den is the place you run to after doing the robbery. It’s base. It’s the safe house. It’s the place where it doesn’t matter what you did out there! Let’s look at the quote from Jeremiah.


Jeremiah 7:4

Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’


(Can you picture the red puffy face blathering this? It’s like it’s illustrated. Man I love the Bible.)


Jeremiah 7:8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?


So there have always been people who think they can do anything they want, so long as they pledge allegiance to the right team. They turn something that’s meant to be holy into a clubhouse for us, but not them. A refuge from the nations.


But Isaiah and Jesus proclaim that God’s house is a house of prayer for all the nations. It wasn’t supposed to be exclusive. But that’s what it became. The temple became the center of the universe. It didn’t matter what was going on outside of it, so long as the inside of it kept running. The world outside was an inconvenience, a distraction. What really mattered was religion. What really matters is us.


Jesus wasn’t trying to fix that Temple. He wasn’t trying to implement reforms that would build on one incremental change after another. He wanted to tear the whole the thing down. Sometimes something is so broken, there’s just no fixing it. Sometimes the machine is chugging along so efficiently, that the only way to oppose it is with rage.


We have our own institutions like that today, don’t we? Our economic system is like that, isn’t it? Once I believe that cruelty was just an unfortunate side effect of it, but I now believe it’s a feature, not a bug.


But what are you gonna do? Disrupt the system for a day and lose your future for it? No thanks.


That’s what Jesus does here, though. He curses a symbolic tree, and then calls for the destruction of something so central to his people’s identity that they can’t imagine life without it.


18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.


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.’


Which sounds just like later on, in Mark 13: 1-2,

13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’


These little textual details really do matter. There’s intentional symmetry here.


2 Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’


The fig tree died, and so will the Temple. Institutions often outlive their purpose. Even really important ones. Jesus calls over and over again for the end to something that many held as sacred. But he never agitated or organized. He did a little demonstrating, sure. He called for this great symbol to be discarded, but he didn’t form an army to tear it down.


You might even say that he was all talk and no action, at least in regards to the Temple.


We do that to each other, sometimes. When people point out the flaws in society, or in the church, when people have legitimate complaints that we don’t want to hear for one reason or another, sometimes we say things like, “What do you propose we do about it?” And if they don’t know, the implication is to stop talking about it then. We act like this is the best of all possible worlds, and short of a new heaven and a new earth coming down from God, we don’t want to hear about other possibilities. We think that the way it is, is the way it will always be. We don’t listen to those who complain, and so we don’t join them in imagining the way it could be.


Like the disciple, we say, “Look! Rabbi! What large stones and what large buildings!” Things will always be like this! There’s no reason to explore other possibilities. That’s disloyal to the way things are. But…spoiler alert…Jesus was right. Not one stone was left on another.


Empire did what empire does, and the Temple was destroyed by Titus’ army around 40 years after Jesus said it would and should. That event culminated in the best reformation the people could have hoped for. The heart of the faith moved to the synagogue, and eventually to the congregation, to observing and living out the Word. Judaism was born. And from that cradle, the church grew too.


Maybe Jesus was seeing all that, or just imagining it, when Peter called out that the tree he cursed had withered to the roots. Maybe that’s why Jesus taught him what it all meant, and how he could be a part of it. It’s an unexpected ending to the story, which makes it all the richer for us.


22 Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God.


You see this crazy world? And these behemoth institutions that crush people by their very nature? Try not to worry about them. Have faith in God. And then he moves to prayer. And before you take what he is about to say as a general rule for prayer, keep in mind where he was standing, what mountain he was looking at, and what sandwich we’re in. They didn’t call it the Temple Mount for nothing.


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.


It might not happen right then. It might take a war that you would never pray to happen, but if God wants it to happen, it will.


24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.


Especially when what you’re praying for is justice. Especially when what you’re praying for is equality, and peace, and that the house of God would be a house of prayer for all nations, and not a refuge for scoundrels. If that’s what you’re praying for, instead of being mad that it’s not here completely yet, just start acting like it is. Believe that YOU have received it, and you have. You don’t need anyone’s permission, or acceptance, to start living in God’s kingdom now.


Jesus saves the most important lesson about prayer, and working for social change, hoping for revolution even, for last.


25 ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’


Because it’s so tempting for us to hate the bad guys, isn’t it? It’s so alluring to get sucked into that never ending cycle of “Did you hear what they just did?” And just see red whenever you see their puffy faces.


It’s so easy for us to get mad at people who share our goals but not our methods and timelines. Who are going in the same direction as we are, but too fast, or not urgently enough. To fight amongst ourselves and jockey for position in the kingdom of God.


So Jesus tells his disciples, then and now, to forgive. To do it daily, more than daily, every time you pray. Forgive, if you have anything against anyone. Especially, I think, in the context of what Jesus is teaching and showing in this story.


When you see things that others don’t, like Jesus did. When you come to conclusions that threaten the way things are, like Jesus did. Then you must forgive the people who can’t see it yet, just like Jesus did.


All the same, keep on working, even if the work seems impossible.


Keep on imagining, even if it seems far-fetched.


Keep on praying. God is the one who will move the mountain.


Keep on forgiving, even the people who seem to be the problem with the world. Just don’t let them stop you. God can move them too.



And also…stop buying expensive plants if you know you’re just going to kill them. It might not be a sin, but it’s a waste of money.


Amen.


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