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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.

Kill the killer.

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The repugnant fuck screamed again, his aching moans echoed off the walls, driven into the meat of the dead where they stagnated. He could feel blood welling behind his eyes.

“LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE, YOU LITTLE BITCH!” Jett’s voice became lower and more broken as he took the butt of the rifle to the boy’s face, his nose folding like an accordion, cartilage driven deep into his face. Birdy, who was beginning to feel left out, kicked him in the ribs. “TAKE A GOOD FUCKING LOOK! IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?” “NO!” he screamed.

“I just want you to fucking kill me!” His voice wavered, his fingers shaking, pressing deep into the tile floor. He pushed himself upwards to face Jett and look him in the eyes, maybe scare him with an expression. Better yet, he could evoke sympathy. His face had turned bright purple, his head a grape on broken shoulders. He quivered and whimpered, his bullshit army outfit coated in blood and two sizes too large.

“Kill him, Jett,” Birdy whispered.

“Not yet, and fuck you.”

“Kill him before the police come in here and kill us.” Birdy looked sternly through chipped glasses, a murky frown hidden under his bushy moustache. Jett’s head swung around to meet him with an insane expression. He wanted to beat Birdy in the face, but instead splintered the boy’s leg with a  gunshot.

“Kill him? Kill him like he killed all these kids? It’s not that simple. All these kids are dead, but their parents aren’t. Their brothers aren’t. Great, now everybody’s fucking sad, so we kill this kid and he doesn’t have to feel–” Jett tore into the boy with a fist, “all that fucking pain?”

Jett pistol-whipped the boy with the empty 9mm. The boys eyes had swelled shut, but Jett’s were black as well. It looked as if he’d been punched–he hadn’t slept in days.

Jett dragged the boy across the floor, his skin shrieking across the tiles as his sweat smeared. He could feel his hair coming out of his skull as Jett grabbed him and ripped him upwards, eliciting a horrific yelp. He dropped him face-first into a dead girl. He held him an inch away from her face, made him take in the blood and the emptiness. 10 minutes prior he had killed her with a thin, simple line drawn across his face. He had been evocative, yet emotionless. Birdy kicked him hard in his retarded ass, and his broken nose was driven directly into hers. He vomited and shit himself simultaneously. Birdy kicked him again, and then drove a knee into the boy’s teeth. He could feel teeth swimming in his throat.

“You weak, disgusting fuck,” Birdy hissed. “Have a little fucking dignity.” Jett grabbed the boy’s rifle and stood over him again. He put the safety on and turned it off, just because. He widened his stance and, for good measure, beat the boy in the head with it.

“WAIT!” Jett heard come from up the hallway. Star Ellen… “Wait…” There were tears in her eyes, streaming down her face. Black lines of mascara tore a path down her cheeks. “Let me do it.” The image burned through her mind; a friend whose chest had been torn apart by the hot steel this boy had inevitably stolen from his parents or some shit. They were probably at work listening to the news, hoping their son would be okay. Clark Family Funeral would be on the news too, since it was right across the road. Free press. They wouldn’t have to move the bodies far.

“You think you can handle this?” Jett asked.

“Jett, what are you doing?” Birdy whispered, nudging him.

“Fuck off, Pigeon-Skull.” Jett’s eyes widened. “Yeah, I’ll do it,” Star Ellen said, her voice wavering. She could barely breathe. Every step she took towards them was one more step towards becoming a murderer. She liked the idea. She loved the idea. Jett reached to hand her the rifle. “No, not that. Give me the knife.” She closed her eyes and saw it again; her friend lying on the floor crying. She sounded like a baby. She sounded like a crying baby and then she died and no one stopped to help her because they were all running from the man who had them on their knees and who was killing them and making them beg for their lives. Here was the man–no, the boy–he only seemed like a man with a gun in his hands. Here was the boy who had turned humans into animals and revealed himself into a monster. She drove the knife into his throat and shrieked. He gurgled, and blood was sent spewing through the air. It covered her. Teeth ejaculated out onto his chest as air was forced out his lungs. The blood was hot and gooey and for a moment she loved it. She couldn’t see out of one eye.

“FUCK YOU, BOY!” she screamed. His eyes rolled back in his head. “FUCK YOU, AND FUCK YOU, AND FUCK YOU, AND–” Birdy grabbed her and pulled her back. Jett looked frustrated with him, but said nothing. It was visible on his face, an amazing frown. This was a horrible moment for everyone. He was secretly proud.

“Birdy, punch her in the face?” Jett said.

“What? Why?”

“Birdy… punch her in the face, and then do the same to me. Then we’ll do it to you.”

This is fuck you, too.

April 19, 2010 Leave a comment

You are the un-rightful and unlawful educators for a system within a network of abused children who have no fucking choice but to hang onto every word you tell them. They are the hookers on the streets in the night, or the kids kept in small rooms like cages until you let new men in with them. You bash them in, you shatter hope, you tell them there is no such thing as a mirror of self-reflection. There is only what you want for them. You show them no mercy, you exercise your right–given to you by the weak and pitiful governments too scared to hunt you down–to hurt them. They are weak, but they are not innocent. They are child pornography, and they aim to kill.

They are pitiful and gangly balls of flesh which you use and abuse, but still they are stronger than you. And every day they get stronger than you. As their eyes cloud over like a trail behind a jet in the sky, they become obsessed with forgetting their old lives. If this is all they have, so be it; they will be the human scabs. They will do anything to get away, except actually do anything. They will sit as you snap their ribs one by one, and they will cry, and they will bleed. They will hurt, fuck, die. They will never stop hating you. You can step on them, or burn them as you seem to love to do, but they will always be stronger than you, because they are many, and because, whether they know it or not, they all fucking hate you. Now they have a voice, and I am that voice. Not a choice, but a man resistant to pain and the pain you dole out.

And there are so many of me. I have a fucking army marching through your city, a niece who loves to maim and kill the delegate degenerates you generate, which so many girls and boys in your care wish they could do. We have guns, we have bombs, we have bullets. We have a voice, and a name, and a cause. We have a flag, drawn across each of our chests, but it is a flag that represents people. If you shoot us, you shoot our flag, and so that just gives us one more reason not to get shot. You control the city; you control the boys and the girls; you control the drugs that control them and hook them and keep them jittering in their fucking beds… if they have one. But now we’re here, so strong and so unbelievably proud to be doing the right thing. The government would sooner chase us than they would you, and they’d see us killed on national television if they thought it would bring them even an ounce of good press. But it won’t, because the people love us, because we are the people.

We are the people who take care of our people, and our children, and our streets. We are the people who burn your drugs at your feet, if you can still stand after we beat in your face. We are the mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters and friends and neighbours who want to tell you to fuck off but have never had a podium. I am their podium, and I will gladly allow any one of them to stand on my fucking back to tell you off. There are fathers and brothers who abuse their own children, and we are not them. There are sisters and mothers who abuse the children of others, and still we are not them. We have traveled overseas because sex tourism is our thing. We have bought new prescription glasses, because we are the aging, paper-reading, health food eating parents. And we will use our fucking grandpa glasses so that we can look into your footprints and track you back here. We will hunt you. We will shoot you. We might even rape you.

This is the only fucking world where you don’t know who you can trust or when you can trust them, but right here, on this goddamn issue, I am in the spotlight. Every word I say is broadcast to everyone who wants to hear them, and so you know my intentions are as they are. I am angry, and I am mean, and I would gladly fucking kill every person who gets in my way. I am a murderer. I kill the spoils of war, and you are our spoils; I kill my neighbours when I see them doing as I do not do. From up on my high horse I can say that even those who deserve to die, who molest their children and the children of their friends, and so be it the children of the world, are not as bad as you. You have no urge but for money and baby doll girls who have forgotten their names. You are an enabler of disablers. You are the functioning dysfunction of society’s incredibly breakable machine. You have not hurt them for the last time, because this is not a pain that can stop, but I will see that you do not add to their misery. Why not lay one into me? See you soon, assholes.