Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The last word

I had never had a fig from a fig tree until I moved to Florida. Our son and daughter in law have one in their yard. I had tasted figs before in fig newtons but I was a little leery of taking a bite out of a real fig. It was pleasant both the texture and the taste! It was in full bloom carrying lots of figs.

The story that both Mark and Matthew tell about a fig tree that stood outside Jerusalem is not so uplifting. It is more like a judgment story. Jesus is hungry and looking for figs and finding it unfruitful curses it and it withers and the disciples can't believe what they have just seen. When they look to Jesus for an explanation, Jesus turns it into a lesson on faith and prayer. Jesus says faith will make it possible for the disciples to wither fig trees ( or to make them fruitful, I suppose) and to move mountains - actually to make them jump into the sea. Obviously, Jesus is speaking metaphorically here.

F. Dale Bruner who comments on this passage after consulting just about everybody admits no one seems to know conclusively what Jesus meant by the cursing a fig tree. It is clear that he was angry, he had just cleaned out the temple. He was hungry. He'd had a few days filled with ups and downs (the Triumphal Entry!) And he was heading for the cross at the end of this week. He had a few things on his mind.

The disciples were not getting it. They question, doubt and get things wrong. Jesus repeats his simple lessons. This is not the first time he has taught about prayer. "Ask and you will receive", has been a common theme.

Other New Testament scholars have dealt with this tough passage in other ways. They assume there was some meaning here. Jesus did not just wither a fig tree for no reason. We might if we could. We would have been very frustrated and angry even if we don't think Jesus was. St John Chrysostom could not accept that Jesus was really hungry so he said Jesus was play acting. We try to make sense out of this any way we can.

Mary Gordon, the writer, is ok with leaving the ambiguity there. We think we know how Jesus felt because we have shaken our fist at a rain filled sky, and kicked at the door of a closed restaurant when we are hungry; what Jesus is doing is what we do when we are up against something we cannot change. This fig tree had no figs because it was not supposed to, it was not the season for ripe figs. Jesus, who calmed the sea with a word, and told his disciples they can make mountains jump, could make a fig tree out of season produce figs if he wanted to. He does not, he says it will be forever fruitless.

Mary Gordon finds a lesson of Gospel Truth here: not everything turns out well.

That is certainly what the parables in Matthew 21 - 25 seem to be about. And, the Temple was just cleansed had not turned out well so it needed Jesus' surgical strike. In a few days, Jesus own life would take a very bad turn.

Most of us have been frustrated with ministry at times. Things way too often do not turn out the way we hoped. I have not moved many (any?) mountains in my day. I have prayed over fruitless fig trees. There is a curse over our lives ("Far as the curse is found"). Fig trees don't ripen out of season, we bang our heads against the walls of our limits. We cannot make ourselves, or others, fruitful.

In Mark's telling of this story (Mark 11), Jesus ends up with a word about forgiveness. "Whenever you pray, he says, and you remember anything you have against anyone, forgive them so your Father in heaven may forgive you." (Mark 11:25). Does that mean those who have cursed you, causing you to wither? Or those who are frustrating you, reminding you of your limits, making your life feel so fruitless?

Maybe the lesson Jesus gives is not to let our curses be the last word?

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