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Mark’s Gospel and the Really, Really, Really Barren Fig Tree

July 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Ain't got a clue, these guys

I don’t know what it is, but this has come up a couple of times for me in the past week, so I thought I’d address it briefly. I don’t like seeing people take the Bible out of context, and I especially don’t like when people assume they understand the text just by reading one or two lines and inferring whatever they feel like from it. In fact, I’ve decided to write a series of essays, for my own personal benefit, on scriptural questions or assumptions I find around the internet (and most prominently on r/atheism). I figure this will be a good way for me to brush up on what I already know. After all, if you don’t use it, you lose it, and so it’s not a way for me to school others, but myself.

On that note, it seems that the people in this image are confused by… The Barren Fig Tree:

"What the—?"

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. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

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; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 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.” 

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. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 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. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”(Mark 11.12-24)

The Barren Fig Tree, at a glance, makes Jesus look nuts. Or stupid. Or both. To the casual observer, you’ve got Christ shouting at a tree because it’s not producing fruit, and apparently it’s out of season in the first place, so yeah, that sucks and what the hell’s He thinking? His actions come across as audacious and self-important—less so the characteristics of the most humble messiah. While not framed as a parable, this story is one of the most powerful metaphoric fables within the Evangelion, and contrary to its inexplicable appearance, it’s some harsh shit.

It’s also repeated in a slightly different order, and with a slightly different message, in Matthew 21.18-19, which I recommend people read as well.

The story of the Barren Fig Tree in Mark is a prime example of the Markan Sandwich. A common literary technique in Mark is to embed a story within two fragments of another story (Mark 3.19b-35; 4.1–20; 5.21–43; 6.7–30; 11.12-24; 14.1–11; 14.17–31; 14.53–72; 15.40–16.8). While seemingly unrelated, in each instance the two stories are carefully intertwined and work together to deliver a cohesive theological message. In this case, our very fruity sandwich looks like this:

  • [Barren Fig Tree Bun]I can't explain the cheese
  • [Temple Meat]
  • [Barren Fig Tree Bun]

(Matthew does not make use of this  technique, explaining the discrepancy in the order of events).

We can’t really understand what’s going on in the temple without knowing what’s going on with the fig tree, and we can’t really know what’s going on with the fig tree unless we know what’s going on with the temple, so it takes a little bit of hopping back and forth between the two narratives to really get a clear picture of what we’re looking at.

First, let’s dive into the Tanakh to try and get a look at the importance of the fig tree. The best verse, in my mind, is Hosea 9.10, which states that “… Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors.” Here, first fruit is a reference to Israel as the LORD’s chosen—‘divinely elected’ in the wilderness. Similarly, check out Jeremiah 2.3, where Israel is referred to as “… the first fruits of [YHVH’s] harvest.” Deuteronomy 32.10, part of a song tracing Israel’s history up and to the wilderness period, also makes mention of Israel as the LORD’s chosen fruit; the “apple of his eye.” This is likely the source of the notion of Israel as the LORD’s fruit.

Of course, as usual, the Israelite’s totally squandered their shit. In Isaiah 34.4b, an oracle from the works of Proto-Isaiah, the author delivers a prophetic smack down, stating that “… All their host shall wither like a leaf withering on a vine, or fruit withering on a fig tree.” Christ’s condemnation of the fig tree is meant as a reference to this prophecy in Isaiah. Just to throw fuel on the fire, in Jeremiah 5.17, it’s written that “… they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees…” The threat of enemies gobbling up the harvest was pretty common in Israel at the time, and is often used as a curse (Leviticus 26.16; Deuteronomy 28.25-37).

All of this helps to explain the metaphor that Christ is using here. Israel is the fig tree, the LORD’s first chosen, and its figs are its spiritual gains. Thus, the tree full of leaves, despite being out of season, is a reference to Israel’s status as the first chosen of the LORD. By all means, this tree should have a bumper crop of figs. Figs everywhere. Instead… no figs.

This entire story works well in the context of what Christ had to say about grapes in John as well:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15.1-2)

So to get an idea of what Jesus is talking about by fruits, I’m also gonna throw in a really cool quote from Paul in Galatians:

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5.22-23)

This list of virtues was clearly lacking in Jerusalem, where Christ saw that people had become bogged down with a xenophobic obsession with the law, and with pride for their culture at the expense of others, including their own people. Christ saw people calling in God’s name while simultaneously worshiping money, using faith to gain status, and making a mockery of goodness on a grandiose scale. These elements are present throughout the entirety of the four gospels, and this story works to sum up the end result of their actions.

With the first part of the fig tree story acting as the bottom bun of the sandwich, the meat of the story is placed when Jesus enters into the temple only to find it crowded with money changers and commercial vendors. Obviously, He was not pleased. As a historical reference, in 20 BCE, Herod the Great rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, only to fill it with ornate columns, fountains, and shops. It had been taken from a place of solemn worship and transformed into a commercial enterprise. No longer was its focus to honour God through sincere sacrifice, but instead it had been turned into a “Wonder of the Roman Imperial World.” A bustling micro-economy was at work, with people changing money and selling sacrifices without really thinking at all about the implications. No longer were people offering up to God, and honouring the codified rituals that make up the moral system of the Law. Instead, the temple ran itself like a theme park, with sacrifice being just one of the many tourist attractions. Worship became spectacle, and spectacle profit. It was Jerusalem’s answer to Disney World.

As Christ’s anger flares, and He overturns the tables and drives out the money changers and the counter girls, we see a very famous passage. I’ll quote it again:

 “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. 
(Mark 11.17b)

Here, Jesus quotes Isaiah 56.7, saying “for my house shall be called a house of prayer,” only to immediately follow it up with Jeremiah 7.11, which states “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” This set of prophecies comes together as a scathing criticism of the temple.

One might translate “den of robbers” as “bandits’ stronghold,” (σπήλαιον  λῃστῶν in Mark; הַמְעָרַת פָּרִצִים in Jeremiah) further further implying that the upper class stole from the poor and then went and sought refuge in the temple, something we’re familiar with even today.

To sum it up, the temple is leaves without fruit. We are told to watch for fruits:

 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. (Matthew 24.32-33)

Orthodorky

The top bun of the sandwich is plopped on when Jesus and his disciples pass by the fig tree again the next day only to find it withered. Christ informs his followers that they must trust in prophecy, and in Him, something which is most clearly stated in verse 14 where it’s written that “… his disciples heard it.” The disciples watched as Jesus condemned Israel and cursed it to wither. The disciples watched again as Christ scorned the temple dicks with His disparaging prophecies, teaching how they had come to light. Christ is rejecting Israel. His cursing the fig tree is proof through prophecy for the disciples, as they hear Him, that they are doing the right thing in establishing His church.

Christ is bringing His kingdom to those who will bear fruits—the Gentiles. The Jews have had their chance and have borne nothing, instead turning against God to serve, as usual, money and power. Christ then proceeds to take this notion of who’s a “have” and who’s a “have not” and turns it on its head:

“Have faith in God. 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. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11.24)

Christ isn’t literally saying that faith will make actual mountains jump into the sea, but that much is obvious. He’s saying that the disciples, if they put their faith into Christ and His mission, will be able to change the shape of the whole world. They did. With this quote, Christ closes the narrative, and for all his harsh words, ends on a promise.

It’s not a story about what Christ deserves, like people might be inclined to think, but what people deserve. This story showcases Christ’s prophetic condemnations both literally and through striking and complex metaphor. The anger and reproach behind Christ’s actions show the gravity of Israel’s offenses. Despite this, He’s not cutting Israel off, but offering them a promise. Through kindness, selflessness, and faith, they can have everything.

To close off on a slightly different topic, I feel like this essay is coming at a really good time for me. I’m moving to a new area in a few weeks, and I’ll be living right near a church calling itself the Prayer Palace. With almost no outreach ministry to speak of, and a pantheon of pastors who have more money than God Himself, I can’t help but be reminded of the Barren Fig Tree, and what it means for mega churches in the modern world. In a 3000 member strong congregation, you can be sure there are good people doing great things. I just can’t help but feel like, with all the allegations against their staff, the trees are probably a little more withered at the Prayer Palace than elsewhere just up the road.

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