Jesus Curses a Fig Tree and Clears the Temple Courts
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
If Jesus could curse a fig tree and make it die, why didn’t he bless it and make it produce fruit?
If it wasn’t fig season, why did Jesus expect to find fruit? Why is Jesus so angry?
And the fig tree is a metaphor for the temple but what exactly is it telling us?
What can this passage say about the season we are experiencing?
I don’t have any clear-cut answers to any of these questions. This is one of those stories we have inherited that feels significant, but we can’t really put a finger on exactly why. As Kyle said last week, there is a deep resonance with the Gospel according to Mark in my heart, and it definitely lives next to my 90s alternative rock mix tape list. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Mark’s gospel was written after the temple was destroyed and for people who remember what the temple was like. They only see the ruins of what was once a place they had built their life around. Like a withered fig tree on the side of the road, the temple ruins remind them of what will never be again. So, for Mark’s audience, the temple cleansing is a foreshadowing of the temple destruction. But this gets complicated really fast. The temple was destroyed by the Romans so did God use the Romans to destroy God’s temple? And what was wrong with the temple in the first place?
Jesus talks about the temple becoming a den of robbers. But there are some issues with that statement too. There had to be money changers and people selling animals at the temple so that the people traveling to the temple to worship could make sacrifices. Taking an unblemished animal on a long journey means that you need to feed and care for it and hope it doesn’t get hurt on the way, because then it’s not unblemished and isn’t fit for a sacrifice anyway. The people in the outer temple courts were providing a service for those who wanted to worship in the temple. And sure, just like in every other group of people there is someone trying to cheat someone else, but there are also a lot of good people. And blaming Jewish people for misappropriating money for their own gain can take us down an antisemitic path that I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel intended. Some Christian interpreters will even say that Jesus’ actions here are symbolically replacing Judaism with Christianity by destroying that place of worship. But that doesn’t fly in a multicultural multifaith setting where we believe that God’s love is ever expanding and not limited to one particular people or a single set of ‘right’ ideas. What is Jesus doing other than trying to get himself killed?
What grabs my attention in this passage is that Jesus interrupts ‘worship as usual’ to call people to prayer. And if that isn’t the definition of pandemic worship, I don’t know what is. We have certainly experienced an interruption of our usual worship that has brought us to prayer. But even that statement feels dangerous. I don’t mean to imply that God sent a pandemic just to shake things up at Third Church. But I can’t ignore that things are very different, and God is part of this and is with us.
What is true about Mark’s original audience and for us is that we have been through some big changes, and we are afraid of changing.
This is where I cue up “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks and I know you are thinking that’s a 70s song, but I heard her perform it live (without Fleetwood Mac) in the late 90s. She wrote the song about waiting for her father to come through surgery before she joined Fleetwood Mac. The most popular cover of that song was by the Dixie Chicks in 2002, and the song took on a more county sound and the meaning of ending a romantic relationship. (The County Music Project) It’s a song that’s been covered by lots of artists, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Miley Cyrus, and Gwyneth Paltrow sang it on Glee. No matter who sings this song, it is full of emotion that is both deeply personal and completely communal. The lyrics are a mysterious and timeless, but speak to big life changes, changes that are permanent; that there is no going back.
Lyrics: (only some of the lyrics)
Oh, mirror in the sky what is love
Can a child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life
Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I built my life around you
But time makes bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too
So, take this love and take it down
And if you climb a Mountain and you turn around
And If you see my reflection in the snow covered hills
Well the landslide brought me down
We’ve all been through big changes but what doesn’t change is our need for prayer, community, and the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus and the disciples pass by the fig tree again and see that it is dead. In the language of the NIV Jesus reminds the disciples to have faith and to pray and he says “ 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
What is needed to sustain us through all our big changes, especially when we have no easy answers, and when there is no turning back, is prayer, community, and the forgiveness of sins.
We can’t stand in front of the withered fig tree and expect it to change. It’s dead. But together, our own rag tag group of disciples will take one small and courageous step into the future.