This week, as we continue our Turning the Tables series, David Morrow discusses another Scripture passage that is commonly misunderstood (and misused) to justify violence – Mark11:11-14, 19-21 (the cursing of the fig tree). Was Jesus merely “hangry” (the state of being so hungry that anger accompanies that hunger), or was there a deeper purpose?
Before looking at this Scripture, David lays a foundation by defining violence as, anti-“other” aggression that influences our thoughts, formed in our words, and illustrated in our actions, and ultimately diminishes the value of another person. Sadly, this understanding of violence has had a major presence in Christianity since the 4th Century AD, when Augustine shaped the Just War Theory – which gave certain expressions of violence permission to exist in the Christian life.
This isn’t just a large-scale issue. We all have our own “just war theories” – those areas that we justify doing “violence” to others (as defined above, as diminishing the value of another person) in certain “permissible” situations.
Jesus teaches us never to diminish another’s value, even in the face of violent opposition. However, some scholars have (and still) resist the non-violent aspect of Jesus’ nature and teaching. The account of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11 is one of the verses used to justify this erroneous viewpoint. Every miracle in Scripture shows Jesus restoring what was broken…except this one. But David reminds us that when we see something in Scripture that confuses us, we ought to as questions instead of taking the Scripture “at face value.” Especially since early interpreters saw Scripture as a sort of “gem,” that reflected light in variety of diverse ways, depending on how you turned the gem. Sometimes we need to “turn the gem” of Scripture and look at it in a different perspective to see the light God is trying to reveal to us.
To do this, we could ask a few questions:
- The Leaves. Notice that Scripture mentions that this tree had leaves but no fruit twice…why the double mention?
- The Curse. Why did Jesus curse this tree for not bearing any fruit…when Scripture says that this wasn’t even the season for fig trees to grow fruit?
- Sandwiches. How come this story is split into two parts, “sandwiching” a completely different story in the middle? The Gospel of Mark sandwiches stories together like this 10 times.
Exploring the Questions
Fig trees were extremely common in the Middle East, and the figs they grow begin as little buds when they’re in season. As travelers walked by and noticed these buds, they could pick them off and eat them for a snack. A key insight about these fig trees, however, is that the leaves grow after the fruit. But the fig tree in this Scripture passage has leaves, but no fruit. If fig trees grew leaves before the figs bud, then it’s an indicator that the tree would not produce any fruit that year. This tree, in essence, would not produce any fruit this season. It had full-grown leaves giving the appearance of growth…but no fruit. And this fruit is important. Figs are mentioned around 68 times in Scripture, and are related to the wealth, prosperity, and provision of God.
In Scripture, it’s important to notice how the text flows, and this Scripture sandwiches 2 stories together. The author takes the fig tree story and inserts Jesus cleansing the temple in the middle. This is interesting, because there is a connection with the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” because he mourns over the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem. And in Jeremiah 8:13, he connects the bankrupt nature of God’s people with the lack of fruit on a fig tree:
“When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
Micah does the same in Micah 7:1-2:
“Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
after the summer fruit has been gathered,
after the vintage has been gleaned,
finds no cluster to eat;
there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.
2 The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.”
David shared this quote from a poem by John Keats:
“Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses.”
Jesus, in keeping with the well-understood imagery of Israel, was asserting that the temple was dead, because it could not “be proved upon our pulse.” It is possible to have passion but not have a pulse; to say all the right words but not have a pulse; to do all the right things but not have a pulse; to think we’re growing but not have a pulse. Like a doctor with a stethoscope, Jesus was inspecting the temple, its system, and even more directly, those who led it – to see if there was any sign of a pulse of life. He found no fruit.
Jesus makes His point even more explicit in Matthew 21:43:
“Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
This is even more striking considering that 40 years after this message was announced, the temple was completely destroyed.
We can gain an even deeper understanding of the fig tree when we consider another way that early Jewish scholars would look for Scriptural clues to find God’s voice. They would look to the earliest mention of what they were questioning to gain deeper understanding. For example, during the Exodus from Egypt, the 9th plague was “darkness,” where the land was dark except for the lights shining in the Hebrew homes. Scholars would search for the 1st mention of “light” in Scripture, which is in the beginning of Genesis 1 (“Let there be light!”). The early scholars would reflect on their story of liberation from Egyptian slavery by interpreting this as “God is creating a people for Himself, just like in the creation story.”
So what, then, is the 1st mention of “figs” in Scripture? It is found in Genesis 3:7:
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
Why did they use fig leaves? 99% of early interpreters of the Bible believed that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a fig tree. Adam and Eve grabbed the 1st item they could find to cover their vulnerability, and shame, which was the large leaf of the fig tree (which are larger than an adult’s hand).
If this is true, then Jesus is proclaiming 2 things:
- There is danger of having leaves but not fruit
We have the same potential to look like we have life and growth, but instead are internally bankrupt of fruit. Sometimes we speak of non-violence, but could we possibly be “covering ourselves” with fig leaves? Is there still something hiding inside, underneath the “leaf?”
- Jesus is cursing the curse
You don’t need the leaves to cover your shame, because Jesus has taken the shame completely away. Jesus didn’t curse the tree, He was merely proclaiming what was already true about it – and in the process, connected it’s lack of fruit to the corrupt leaders, system, and the temple.
David then asked the question, “What’s our own personal just war theory?” He gave a prime example of how parents respond and react when their children don’t listen. Parents may respond by yelling at the child, shaming them, crushing their spirits, etc. But when this happens, what’s really going on there “underneath the fig leaf?” One thing is fear. We, as parents have a tendency to imagine the worst case scenario, such as a negative behavior that is undisciplined completely hijacking the child to the point that they end up in jail or worse before they are even adults. So we react harshly to “fix” the child and keep them from following the imaginary path of destruction in our minds
The other thing that causes us to “do violence” is our desire to control something, In a world that we can’t control, it feels good to maintain control over something. We default to power over others instead of power under them. In such circumstances, we need to ask ourselves as (Christians), “Do I really believe that the way of service is the way up? Do I really trust that love is the way?”
In short, we could control, manipulate, and coerce, but God doesn’t do that with us – even though He could. God understands that control and manipulation and coercion does not change hearts. Only His love and grace can do that.
May we trust this love and grace, and in this way, experience true growth – growth that bears much fruit in character, and in God’s Kingdom.
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