"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Death to Fig Trees!

leave a comment »

Preaching through Mark. 18 March 2012, Mark 11:20 to 12:40 Lent 4

We’re here at our next installment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and today’s chunk of the Word brings to the forefront the direct challenge of Christ’s ministry and very presence toward the religious authorities of His day. Early on in Mark we heard the refrain of secrecy – tell no one what has happened. Now, since the triumphal entry to Jerusalem Jesus proclaims his mission directly, succinctly and issues challenge after challenge to the temple leaders. It is a proclamation that will lead to only one possible outcome. Rather than a walk through the entire reading for today, I’m going to focus on the first part – and mostly the fig tree with a bit on the wicked tenants.

The fig tree forms the real cornerstone of this overt proclamation of Christ’s mission, and it is also a source of considerable challenge for us. The bible commentator William Barclay called the fig tree account “…without exception, the most difficult one in the gospels.” This is also one of the accounts seized by atheists as demonstrating the inherent unreasonableness of the Bible. As I’ve said before, the unreasonableness is exactly the point. Sometimes this passage is preached apologetically, that Jesus really didn’t mean what he said, or didn’t actually curse this poor, innocent fig tree that was, after all, just being a fig tree out of season. Some academics call the account unreasonable, inconsistent and completely out of character, others label Jesus’ as irrational and revolting, and lacking any sort of moral motive or justification.

There is only one thing to say about that “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 18). As we’ve spoken of for the last weeks, one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry is the unreasonableness of his approach. Jesus is not moral, at least as we understand human morality; Jesus is not rational, at least as we understand human rationality; and for many, including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes Jesus’ behaviour is revolting…as the main character in the novel the Life of Pi exclaims: what kind of a God comes to save everyone by dying? Foolishness to the wise. What we see clearly through this reading is a distortion of the person of Jesus, of who he is, of who God is, by the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Scribes. This distortion is a particular stronghold in the lives of many Christians, including me, and I’ll speak directly at this point today.

I always laugh when I see a commentary that suggests Jesus was being irrational or immoral. There’s a principle used in the interpretation of the secular law, that basically says you should read every law as if it was written to make sense within the framework of laws – a presumption of harmony within legislation (“harmony, coherence, and consistency between statutes dealing with the same subject matter”). It’s based on the good assumption that people who write the laws would not deliberately create law that was irrational or immoral. That same principle is an important one to apply when you are reading Scripture – so if you read something in the bible that leads to the conclusion that God is irrational or immoral, it is time to go back and re-read it assuming that the image of God is harmonious, consistent and coherent with the entire canon of Scripture. The reason that approach is important is that we humans love to re-engineer God in our own image. So we easily accept Scripture that reinforces the life we wish to lead; we re-interpret Scripture that is marginally challenging to that life; and we call ‘irrational’ or ‘immoral’ those things that are directly contrary to the life we believe God owes us. The challenge of Scripture always points outward toward the reader.

The cursing of the fig tree is not capricious. Our first stop is to consider who it is that curses this tree, and to ask the very rhetorical question if the creator of all that is, visible and invisible, has the right to do with his creation as he wishes? Of course he does. Or perhaps we are caught on the conflict created in our minds by a distorted image of the person of Christ: if we believe that he is about nothing but human love and compassion, the idea that the ‘teddy bear’ Christ could curse anything (even a barren tree) will cause us discomfort. Perhaps the discomfort arises out of an image of a god who could never forgive someone like you, and so the distortion leads you to despair. If you have that distorted image of Christ, it is time to give it up, and to realize that the creator of all that is, is too great to be boxed into our personal concept of who he is. A distorted view of God distorts who we are and creates huge problems as that god begins to look a lot like we do, and act a lot like we do whether godly or not.

In Mark’s telling of the fig tree it falls on either side of Jesus clearing of the temple, like this: curse tree – clear temple – withered tree. If that does not make the linkage clear, the parable of the wicked tenants that comes immediately afterwards points us clearly to the religious authorities and their fruitless leadership of Israel. A word of caution – this sequence has been used to justify anti-Semitic thought in the past, but it is clear that the vineyard, that is the nation of Israel, is not under this curse, but rather the religious authorities that had been entrusted with the care of that vineyard, of God’s people. This is Jesus’ prophetic critique, not a condemnation of the Jews and the vineyard continues, even as those entrusted with it are destroyed. Jesus’ cursing of the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again”, is His cursing of the religious leaders; and the withering of that tree, is the coming destruction of all that the leadership held dear: the temple, a complex system of tithes, sacrifices and offerings that made the religious rulers rich; and a structure that was designed to oppress and control – to devour widow’s estates. Rather than bringing new life (as God always does), it was a system that brought blindness and death. The withering right down to the roots tells us directly what is to happen to the fruitless religious system. As a fact of history, in a short 37 years, the great temple will be reduced to rubble by the Romans.

When Peter remarks on the withered tree, Jesus responds by saying, Have faith (or trust) in God. After pronouncing judgment on the religious leaders through the cursing of the fig tree God’s word is: trust in God. What follows, a mountain that can be thrown into the sea through prayer, is not a guide book about what perfect prayer may achieve. Rather, it is an emphasis on right relationship with God. Faith is not an attitude or a mindset or force of will, but a relationship with a personal God that makes possible the impossible. Our relationship with God in turn shapes our prayer. If we have no trust in God, our prayers will reflect a similarly limited view of his ability to intercede in any real way. That shaping helps us to cease asking for what it is that we want; but rather to pray for the things that God wants. In relationship, our prayer is shaped by the being of God, and becomes a perfect image of His will. Perfect prayer reflects perfectly the face of God, a perfect image of His will upon our lips.

Jesus is approached and asked the question by a cross-section of the religious elite, a very legal question, “By whose authority to you do these things, and who gave you authority to do them?” The question is a little silly, given that Jesus has done everything the prophets said would mark the coming of the Messiah: the blind see, the lame walk. The authority behind his actions is clear, but not if you see him as irrational, immoral and a threat to everything that you’ve got going for you. The Greek word used here for authority is exousia, and we heard the same word much earlier in Mark, as all the people who heard and saw Jesus marveled and said, he teaches with authority (exousia) unlike the scribes. This is an important bit of symmetry for while the religious leaders are blind to the reality of God incarnate, the people who Jesus came to minister to have already long since recognized that authority, along with all the demons. The authority of God. The encounter ends with a question from Jesus that the leaders refuse to answer out of fear for the crowd…he basically boxes them into to a no-win situation and so they take the coward’s path out by answering ‘we do not know’. Their response to Jesus comes out of fear and distrust…which contrasts nicely with the message of the fig tree: trust in God; while the religious leaders respond with distrust in God.

The message of judgment on the leaders of the nation of Israel is again made clear in the parable of the wicked tenants – the owner of the vineyard, that is God, has planted the vines, that is Israel, and leased the vineyard out to tenants to tend and harvest, these are the religious leaders of Israel. God sends his servants to collect his share of the harvests, but the tenants beat them and kill them, these are the prophets sent to be God’s voice to call his people back; ultimately the owner of the vineyard concludes that if he sends his son, the tenants will respect him. The tenants instead conclude that the killing of the son may result in their inheriting the vineyard – which in contrast to the holy rationality of Jesus, is a highly irrational thought. The end result? The owner of the vineyard returns to destroy the tenants and to give the vineyard to others.

What follows are more encounters with the religious authorities, and Jesus’ continued challenging of their authority, their understanding of God. This is nowhere clearer than in the question from the Sadducees about the wife of the seven brothers and the logic puzzle that they used to disprove the existence of the resurrection. This is worth a quick mention because of its cautionary word to us about the use of human reason as our only tool to understand God’s word. Jesus response to this logic puzzle: this only demonstrates that the Sadducees know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Jesus follows this with two tantalizing comments about the nature of death and heaven – one of the few times he speaks directly. Those who rise from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven (note that He said “like”, not “as”, for the popular notion that good people are reborn as angels). And this – that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Our God is of the living…which is another word of hope for all of us who have had our beloved ones die from this mortal life, that they dwell with the God of the living.

I am convinced that the reason the fig tree encounter is such a difficult reading is that it engages on a fundamental level the idolatrous aspects of our belief in God. This is uncomfortable. The distortion of God in the modern church reconceives of Jesus and the Father as a God of human love and nothing else. We would not think to curse an innocent fig tree, and we conclude that a God of love would not either, therefore the reading must be a mistake. Yet, by contrast, we have no problem in receiving that “loving, human God’s” condemnation of the leaders of Israel with happiness. Yeah, you go Jesus! We shout as Jesus gives it to those nasty Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes and Herodians. But wait // if we see Jesus as that loving God who only wants to hug the world, why is it that his condemnation of the religious leaders does not fall on our ears with as much challenge as the death of this poor fig tree? // Ahh, that is where the real challenge of this Gospel comes into full fruit – we find it easy to hear the religious leaders condemned because we have no problem seeing them as bad and deserving of what they get, while we have even less trouble seeing ourselves as good right along with the innocent fig tree. This is a huge distortion in our understanding of God’s being. As Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

We could talk on this point for weeks – the nature of God, as it is a cornerstone of the faith, and also the quickest path to a hugely idolatrous understanding of God. Our hearts continually try to box God into a place where we are able to subsume the totality of his greatness into ourselves, to take ownership of Him and to re-make Him in our image, which is of course the core of idolatry. CS Lewis says at one point that a common image of God is the kindly old man sitting in the upper right hand corner of the room, nodding off, who is uninvolved but really wants nothing more than that we should all have a really good time. This is a tough teaching, and it is probably easier to attack it through fiction, and the un-tamed Jesus of Narnia, Aslan, the great golden lion. What is the reality of God versus our human need for Him to be safe, tame and loveable and completely distorted? What exactly does CS Lewis mean when he repeatedly asserts that Aslan is not a tame lion? Consider this exchange from “The Silver Chair”, where a young lady named Jill is perishing from thirst, but is very frightened by the Great Lion, Aslan.

“The wood was so still that it was not difficult to decide where the sound was coming from. It grew clearer every moment and, sooner than she expected, she came to an open glade and saw the stream, bright as glass, running across the turf a stone’s throw away from her. But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into a stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason: just on this side of the stream lay the Lion. It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it like the lions in Trafalgar Square. She knew at once that it had seen her, for its eyes looked straight into hers for a moment and then turned away—as if it knew her quite well and didn’t think much of her.

“If I run away, it’ll be after me in a moment,” thought Jill. “And if I go on, I shall run straight into its mouth.” Anyway, she couldn’t have moved if she had tried, and she couldn’t take eyes off it. How long this lasted she could not be sure; it seemed like hours. And the thirst became so bad that she almost felt she would not mind being eaten by the Lion if only she could be sure of getting a mouthful of water first. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”

They were the first words she had heard since Scrubb had spoken to her on the edge of the cliff. For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” and of course she remembered what Scrubb had said about animals talking in that other world, and realised that it was the Lion speaking. Anyway, she had seen its lips move this time, and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her feel any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.

“Are you going to drink?” said the Lion.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless hulk, she realised that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. “I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I supposed I must go and look for some other stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion. .

There is only one stream that provides eternal refreshment, and that is Jesus, a very untamed God. Being in relationship is one of risk, which is one of the reasons we dislike the fate of the fig tree – it reminds us of God’s wildness, and of our fragility. If only he would retreat so we could drink in safety! But, it is not to be. The difficult message of the fig tree is one of trust in God, even while things are changing and uncertain, while we are wearied by the changes and chances of this world. Faith in Jesus, even in the midst of death, our death, will continue to turn that death into glorious resurrection. This is all ours, if we but dare to drink. So, while this story of a cursed fig tree challenges our understanding of God and the nature of his being, it is in the end a story of God’s great grace even in judgement – and the promise that if we but believe, we too will be brought to new life even in the death of all we are. Come to the stream of everlasting water and drink! Amen.
—–
An interesting commentary on fig husbandry and how this illustrates better what was going on in the account…written as an answer to an atheist’s argument. Jesus was searching for “breba” figs, the out-of-season figs which would be expected to be found on the tree. When he did not find any figs he concluded the tree was barren, like the Hebrew religious system.

On the matter of the modern approach to statutory interpretation: A case.
…and an article by Prof Ruth Sullivan.

——-  
Stuff that didn’t make it past the cutting room floor:

The message of trust will very quickly be overturned by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders – so hold that idea of trust in God for a moment.

As Augustine said of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, I say to you: behold what you are, become what you receive. Merely believe in Christ, receive him into your heart, your soul, your mind, and he will conquer death in you personally, and bring you with Him into his glorious resurrection.

There is a parable in Luke’s gospel that helps us to see the meaning clearly: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9) God has had patience with his people Israel, but after all that patience they still have not born fruit. Now is the time to cut the barren tree down.

Prayer gives expression of one’s relationship with God and makes the impossible possible. If we have no trust in God, our prayers will reflect a similarly limited view of his ability to intercede in a real way. Faith is a relationship rather than an attitude. We forgive others, as God forgives us.

Prayer in relationship means an understanding of the person to whom we pray – so our prayer is shaped by the being of God. Perfect prayer reflects perfectly the face of God, a perfect image of His will on our lips.

Tenants is an answer to the question of authority and confirms the judgement of the religious rulers. This is Jesus’ prophetic critique, not a condemnation of the Jews. The vineyard continues, even as those entrusted with it are destroyed.

So this account of the fig tree does not reflect an immoral or irrational Jesus, but rather is one more illustration of God’s kingdom at work. For us, the destruction of the temple opened the way to God for all people, previously entrance to the inner precincts of the temple would bear a penalty of death for a Gentile. That penalty has been revoked. We are the wild shoot grafted onto the vine of Israel as Paul describes in Romans 11, reminding us that we are not to be arrogant toward the natural branches of Israel: “…remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. … do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.”

There is a parable in Luke’s gospel that helps us to see the meaning clearly:

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9)

God has had patience with his people Israel, but after all that patience they still have not born fruit. Now is the time to cut the barren tree down.

So this account of the fig tree does not reflect an immoral or irrational Jesus, but rather is one more illustration of God’s kingdom at work. It also has a specific importance for all of us, we Gentiles, who are the wild shoot grafted onto the vine of Israel. Paul describes this in Romans 11, provides a caution to us, and also says something interesting about the branches of Israel that have been broken off that we might be grafted on.

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. … do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”

Advertisements

Written by sameo416

March 18, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî

thoughts of an urban Métis scholar (and sometimes a Mouthy Michif, PhD)

Joshua 1:9

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Engineering Ethics Blog

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

asimplefellow

Today, the Future and the Past all kinda rolled up in one.

istormnews

For Those Courageous in Standing for Truth

âpihtawikosisân

Law, language, life: A Plains Cree speaking Métis woman in Montreal

Malcolm Guite

Blog for poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite

"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

%d bloggers like this: