Figs and Forgiveness . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 15, Year 1 (Pentecost 12, 2015)

Mark 11:12-14 ~ On the following day, when they came from Bethany, [Jesus] 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.

A day or two later (after Jesus has overturned tables in the Temple and driven out the money-changers), he and his band will pass by this tree again. The disciples will notice that it is withered to the root and comment on that fact. Jesus will instruct them about the power of prayer using the famous example of a mountain tossed into the sea. Mark’s use of the withered fig tree story is as a demonstration of power, both Jesus’ power and our own potential, which is all fine and good. Nonetheless, I have always been curious about the story.

It may be that the story is an embodied metaphor, that it happened in another way, that the author of Mark hasn’t really understood it, and that Mark has therefore tried to make sense of it by using it at this point in his narrative. Rabbinic commentary has long used the fig tree as a metaphor for the Torah, noting that the crop of figs do not ripen uniformly so that one most go back to the tree many times to harvest its fruit; the Torah is said to be like that, yielding fruit each time we return to study the scriptures. Perhaps Jesus blasted the fig tree as a way to demonstrate the fruitlessness of Torah as it had come to be used by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and others. Perhaps there was more conversation apropros of the withering which had been lost to communal memory by the time Mark put pen to parchment, recording the action but not its contemporary explanation, adding words about prayer from another conversation. Perhaps . . . .

However that may be, the story as Mark relates it, wrapping it around the “cleansing of the Temple,” reveals a very human Jesus, one given to anger and frustration – righteous anger in the case of the Temple money-changers and livestock salesmen, petulance in the case of the fig tree. When challenged about the result of his fit of pique, he avoids the question, turning it aside with a “Well, you could do it, too, if you just have enough faith.”

I really don’t think Mark intended to portray an angry, frustrated Jesus, but that’s how I read the text . . . and I’m thankful that the story is here, told in this way. Mark’s Jesus is a human being to whom I can relate. I completely understand and I can fully relate the frustrations, the annoyance, and the pique apparent in this story, and even the larger, more justified anger Jesus expresses in the Temple. What I always have a hard time comprehending is Jesus ability a few days later to forgive those who execute him, but the two episodes are intimately connected and, therefor, give me hope. If Jesus is like me in the former, then maybe I can be like Jesus in the latter.

I can learn a lot about scripture, theology, and religious history if the story is one of an embodied metaphor, the fig tree as Torah. I can learn a lot more about me and about God Incarnate if the story is one about Jesus, human, frustrated, and annoyed, who can later offer the ultimate in forgiveness.