Then [Jesus] said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
Mark 11:14, 20 (NIV)
Over the past three or four years, Wendy and I have worked on a phased landscaping plan for our yard. I’m glad to say that this past year was the final phase (for now). I have never been very good with plants and often joke that I have a brown thumb. Nevertheless, I have been growing in my proficiency as I try to keep the lawn, bushes, trees, flowers, grasses, and shrubs alive.
One of the fascinating things for me to watch is what happens when we plant multiples of certain plants. They may look exactly the same when I planted them, and while they are in the same bed and treated to the same amounts of light and water, one of them will die. I’m sure there are very good reasons why this happened (that I don’t care to spend time figuring out), but it always leaves me scratching my head a bit.
In today’s chapter, Mark tells a curious episode of Jesus and a fig tree. He and His followers were walking from the temple in Jerusalem back to where they were staying. Jesus sees a fig tree and looks for a fig to eat. Finding none, He curses the tree and says, “May no one eat fruit from you again.” The next morning on their walk back to the temple, the disciples find the fig tree withered.
I found myself pondering this rather curious episode this morning just as I would scratch my head wondering why in the world that one arborvitae on the north side of our lawn didn’t make it.
As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus rarely did anything that was not intended to be a metaphorical lesson, so there is little doubt in my mind that the cursing of the fig tree was not just a moment of hunger-induced rage. So, what was that all about?
Jesus and the disciples have arrived at the epicenter of Jewish worship and power. In Jesus’ day, the temple consumed about 25% of Jerusalem area-wise and first-hand accounts say that as many as two million spiritual pilgrims would visit to celebrate the Passover. Passover was the festival which annually memorialized the Hebrews miraculously being freed from enslavement in Egypt (e.g. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner). Being at the temple would have been a huge deal for Jesus’ followers. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, or Washington D.C. on the 4th of July.
As Jesus passes the fig tree they have just left the temple. They arrived late in the day and Mark records that they only had time to “look around” at the temple, the crowds, the courts, and the merchants. For Jesus and the disciples, who were from the simple, backwater region Galilee, I have to believe the sights, sounds, and smells of the awe-inspiring location would have been what was on everyone’s minds as they walked.
As I mulled this over, I was reminded of another episode from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story. This happened during the very same visit to Jerusalem:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”Matthew 24:1-2 (NIV)
Then there’s the metaphor of “fruit” which Jesus repeatedly used in His teaching, especially when talking about the religious leaders who ran the very temple they’d just exited:
Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.Matthew 7:17-19 (NIV)
As I connected the dots, the metaphorical meaning of Jesus’ actions with the fig tree came into focus. The temple and the Law of Moses had been intended to bear good, spiritual fruit in the lives of God’s people, their community, and the world. Instead, it had become a corrupt, institutional religious system centered on power, prejudice, and greed. It was a religious tree bearing bad spiritual fruit. In the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was providing a prophetic word picture to His followers consistent with what He had been teaching them all along.
Forty years after the events described in today’s chapter, the Roman Empire would tear down the temple and reduce it to rubble. They would also destroy the genealogical records necessary for determining who was able to perform priestly duties, sacrifices, and care for the temple according to the Law of Moses. In essence, the temple “tree” had been cut down for good.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded that the same metaphor of “fruit” would continue to be central to the teaching of Jesus’ followers:
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.Paul’s Letter to Jesus’ followers in Galatia 5:22-23 (MSG)
As I enter this post-Easter week in a world turned upside-down, I’m reminded that Jesus was never about being a religious rule-keeper. He was about being a cultivator of the spiritual fruit of love in life and relationships. And, I desire to have a green thumb when it comes to spiritual horticulture.
Now, if I could just figure out what the heck happened to those Pencil-Point Junipers by the patio. Oh well. Not as important.