Down To The Roots

Mark 11:12-25

12 The next day, as they came back from Beit-Anyah (Bethany), he felt hungry. 13 Spotting in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came up to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it wasn’t fig season. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And his talmidim heard what he said.

 “For it wasn’t fig season”—Jesus could not have had any realistic expectation of finding figs on the tree. (By the way, the fig tree is a symbol for the nation of Israel in Hebrew culture.)

Jesus was hungry, but it was not the season for figs. Nevertheless, he goes to the tree anyway, and when his expectation that there won’t be any fruit is fulfilled, he says, “May no one eat fruit from you again.”

I made a big jump that sort of shook me up. So, let’s try this on for size—Could this passage be about expectations? Consider the following points.

·        “Jesus was hungry.”  Hunger—an essential need which must be met.

·        The obvious state of reality: it wasn’t the season for figs, but the fig tree had leaves anyway. (Fig trees produce leaves and fruit at the same time.)

·        Conduct which denies or ignores the obvious state of reality but still goes forward— as though the tree should have had fruit for no other reason than that hunger demanded it.

·        The act of blaming the innocent tree for not producing fruit out of season and cursing it so that it withered down to the roots.

Also note that this is a teaching passage as shown by the phrase “and his disciples heard it.” It’s important to look at the context, and how the story about the fig tree forms the bracket for the story about cleansing the temple. Then finally, the capstone is a teaching about prayer. But note, Jesus didn’t pray for figs to appear to satisfy his hunger, instead he “cursed” the tree, saying, “May no one eat fruit from you again,” and the tree withers to its roots. This very negative approach proves the point that this story is not about a real fig tree. Jesus’s miracles are all positive in outcome, not negative. Water to wine; calming storms, healing sickness and injury; providing food for the hungry. This is the only ‘miracle' that is destructive. Somehow Jesus gets from withering a fig tree to the assertion that if a person really trusts God to answer prayer then even “this mountain” will throw itself into the sea. He says, “trust that you are receiving it and it will be yours.”

[Jesus alludes to Torah passages that make it clear that the fig tree stands for Israel, and “this mountain” is the holy mountain which will be “a house of prayer for all nations” in which “their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted.”  Micah 7:1-6  Jeremiah 8:13 Isaiah 56:7]

This is a very complex passage.

It is so not about Jesus throwing a tantrum because he didn’t find ripe figs on a tree in the wrong season. It’s hard to really grasp all the layers of meaning. Jesus is drawing a parallel between the poor innocent fig tree which obeys its nature and produces fruit (or not) according to the season, and the hypocritical nation of Israel which shows an outward appearance (leaves) without real substance (fruit).

Layers and Nuances:

Psychological Layer: Jesus with his eyebrows raised— showing his disciples a kind of behavior, or response, and saying to them, “See, this is what you are doing (or someone else is doing). Is this the right way to go about it?” Jesus models for the disciples a kind of dysfunctional approach to life by first acting on an unreasonable expectation, and then laying blame for the inevitable disappointment. (Idioms: “He should have known better,” and “What did you expect?”)

Relational Layer: Jesus showing the consequences from both directions— what happens if a person deceives another by a false show, and what happens if a person is complicit in the deception by ignoring ‘the 400 lb. gorilla in the room’. Jesus shows in pantomime what Israel is doing: putting out leaves as if there is fruit, but all out of season, and how that is a kind of con game. Jesus also shows the natural response of the mark, who sees the leaves and lets wishful thinking betray him into disappointment, and then he shows the natural result of such disappointment and embarrassment by ‘cursing’ the fig tree.

Metaphorical Layer: The fig tree as Israel—out of season but producing leaves as if it were the time for fruit; denying its nature, but still bound by it, which turns it into a travesty of itself. Other words: “sham;” “mockery;” “hypocrisy.” (I believe that hypocrisy was the thing that Jesus hated the most.) In this passage the metaphor of the fig tree brackets the pragmatic layer— the story of Jesus driving the money lenders out of the Temple.

Liminal Layer: Delusions, mountains moved by trust, forgiveness, and the Realm of God within.

If your hunger makes you hope for figs when

you know there aren’t any, you’ll be dissatisfied.

If your arrogance makes you pretend to have figs when

you don’t, hungry people will be dissatisfied.

If your discontent doesn’t demolish your delusions,

then your heart will wither— right down to the roots.

If you think I don’t know that all the moneychangers will be back

by tomorrow, you’ve missed the point.

If you think the trust in prayer that I’m talking about

is a parlor trick, you’ve got another thing coming.

If you think you can pray without forgiving,

then the Other Thing that’s coming will pass you right by.

Get it? — the mountain is you; you are the mountain,

and that’s where the power to trust comes from.

So, if you think that the whip won’t hurt like blazes

when I drive the moneychangers out of your heart—

Well, you’re in for a surprise.  By the way—

did you know forgiveness makes a good liniment for whip-welts?


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