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.
We are entering into some of the most difficult parts of Mark’s story of Jesus. They are difficult to listen to because of the increased tensions that are evident, tensions that will culminate in violence. They are difficult theologically because of their intricate linkages to cursing, prayer, violence, faithfulness and more. And they are difficult because the very matter of their composition is so complex.
Let’s start there. And let’s do so by going back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel to note that at no place does Mark call his work a history. Rather, he calls it a gospel – literally, “good news.” We have four gospels in the Bible, and while they share many similarities in terms of main characters and a broad plot outline, they are also each quite distinct. Why? Because a gospel – a telling and sharing of good news – is always an interpretation of the story of Jesus intended to help Christians in a particular time and place make sense of their lives in light of that story. And so Luke’s story differs from Mark’s, and Mark’s from John’s, etc., in large part because they were re-telling – and interpreting – the story of Jesus to address the specific needs of distinct groups of Christians each living at a particular time and place.
The wonder of it all is that the early church, recognizing they had four distinct gospels, 1) realized that though each gospel was addressed to a particular people, each could also speak to Christians of all times and places; and 2) believed that our sense of the truth of what God did in and through Jesus was better captured by four distinct account than by one seamless one.
So when we approach something as seemingly innocuous as the cursing of the fig tree or as more obviously problematic as Jesus indicting his opponents (ch. 12) or predicting the destruction of the Temple (ch. 13), we need to keep in mind that Mark is writing well after the events in question took place, was likely not an eye-witness but rather was interpreting these events for a later generation, and wrote a work that was not primarily historical in character but rather evangelical (evangelical comes from the Greek word for “good news”).
In this chapter, Jesus curses the fig tree, moves to drive the moneychangers out of the Temple (the seat of his opponents power), calls his opponents robbers, and retreats to see that the fig tree has, indeed, been cursed and will bear no more fruit. All of which is intended to help Mark’s community – who most scholars believe was experiencing significant turbulence and suffering – that the recent fall of Jerusalem was not as chaotic as it seemed but rather was part of God’s larger plan. Indeed, the Jesus who has the power to curse the fig tree has the power also to grant the prayers of his suffering followers. Further, Mark wants to make clear that Jesus is put to death for proclaiming a kingdom that is so different from the present religious and political kingdoms that it cannot but call their very being and legitimacy into question.
And how are we to hear “good news” in this passage? When we are similarly dismayed by personal or global events, and when we are perplexed by and struggling to make sense of what is happening all around us, we are also invited to remember that the God whose heart is always open to the vulnerable will be present for us in our difficulty, bringing order out of chaos and peace out of violence. This God, that is, has a way of redeeming even the most dark and difficult elements of life. And just to show us, this God will go with Jesus – and us – all the way to the cross.
Prayer: Dear God, we give you thanks for the confessions of Christians past and ask that we might hear in them a word of blessing and encouragement today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post Image from the Brick Bible.