Mark 11:12-14 tells us Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no figs. Verses 15-18 tell that Jesus next "cast out" money changers and animals from the Temple precincts. Following that episode, verses 19-23 tell the result of Jesus cursing the fig tree: it was withered from the roots up.
Was Jesus throwing a temper tantrum when he cursed the fig tree? Or like Tolkien's Old Man Willow, was the fig tree a really wicked tree? That is too silly to accept, yet the whole incident seems strange to us. How can we understand it?
The first thing to know is that the cursing event had a specific meaning. It did not mean that Jesus was angry because he could not find figs to satisfy his hunger. The whole incident was an acted-out parable rather than a spoken parable, if you will, a dramatized parable. It foretold the destruction of the Temple and connected with Jesus' violent actions in the Temple area, when he chased out animals and money-changers.
When Jesus did that, he stopped all sacrifices. That was a monumental affront to the Jewish priests and people of Jerusalem. Stopping sacrifices was stopping the Temple from functioning. It was an acted-out parable that foretold the destruction of the Temple, and was highly offensive to many people.
Furthermore, Jesus' words pointed to the destruction of the Temple in an explicit way, because he quoted from the prophet Jeremiah: "You have made this house, called by God's name, into a den or robbers." Here Jesus referenced Jeremiah 7:11, which originally predicted the destruction of Solomon's Temple (Jeremiah 7:5-15). Thus Jesus' actions, which stopped the Temple sacrifices, and his reference to Jeremiah 7, combined to predict that the Temple would cease to function. Jesus was saying that God would
judge the priests and the people, and remove God's blessing and protection.
Yes, this was very offensive to those who did not accept Jesus' claim to be Israel's Messiah. An attack on the Temple sounded like blasphemy of the worst kind.
And Jesus drove home the same point when he cursed the fig tree. The book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, refers to Israel as a fig tree. Israel was not ashamed of the many wicked things done and tolerated in the land, said Jeremiah, thinking the Temple would protect them regardless of mending their ways.
"They were not ashamed, and they did not know how to blush, therefore they shall fall among those who fall . . . there will be no grapes on the vine, and no figs on the fig tree, and the
leaf shall wither . . ." (Jeremiah 8:12-13).
Therefore, the cursing and withering of the fig tree, which happened right before and after the conflict in the Temple, combined with Jesus' action disrupting Temple sacrifices: together these dramatized parables foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Because Jesus represented God's visitation in Israel and God's way of peace, the rejection of Jesus as Israel's Messiah would result in conflict and destruction. Rejecting the way of peace always brings a terrible consequence.
As Jesus predicted, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., within the lifetime of many of his contemporaries.
What does this story tell us today? I am not a prophet, and cannot predict coming events. Yet I can ask a question: If God judged the Israelites when they forgot how to blush in Jeremiah's day, and when they rejected Jesus as Messiah and proceeded to make war on Rome, why end the discussion there? If God would judge the "chosen people," then God must judge all nations.
How will our nation fare when God weighs us in the balance? Have we done well, or have we also forgotten how to blush? Do we have a right to God's blessing?
How about Christian churches and fellowships? Are we united in serving the purpose of Jesus Christ, or do we serve our own ends? Do we give our lives in service, witness, and cross-bearing? Or do we argue and vie for power and control?
Do we nurse hurt feelings rather than seek God's power to forgive and maintain unity? Do we teach the truth in love? Do we take our place among God's people, or do we stay away until things please us? Ultimately, should God judge or bless our ways?
I don't take the answers for granted, nor do I claim to know God's mind. But the questions are important and can lead all of us to pray for forgiveness, help, renewal, and guidance.
These were hard questions to face in Jesus' day, too. Jesus' cursing the fig tree and radical action in the Temple led directly to his violent death.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may e-mail him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.