To be as inclusive as possible, Knox has both in-person and Podcast Services. For those who can’t access these we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my sermon notes into text.
Ask Andrew 5: Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?
Question: Why did Jesus curse the Fig Tree?
I understand this question. The passage makes it look like Jesus is being petulant. He wants figs from a tree out of season and when the tree can’t deliver he curses it, and a day later it has withered away. This feels like an abuse of power: a serious injustice.
It’s like some of those early Christian fictions called Infancy Gospels that supposedly give us a glimpse of Jesus’ childhood years. They contain stories that don’t feel divine at all: like Jesus creating sparrows out of the mud and breathing life into them; or dealing with a childhood bully by killing him with a word and leaving his mother, Mary, to deal with the unhappy parents by explaining that Jesus is perfect and can do no wrong.
I can see that as a very human childhood fantasy, it involves an easy and satisfying way to deal with a bully with your mom backing you up totally, instead of making you apologize.
This fig tree curse feels like that: why did Jesus do it?
Others have had trouble over the years. Mark’s is the oldest gospel and this is the earliest form of this story. Matthew copied it and changed it. Luke either ignored it, or turned it from a story about Jesus into a parable told by Jesus instead, depending on which scholar you consult.
To understand the message here we need to look deeper. In the past I have mentioned something I called the “Marcan Sandwich”. It’s a literary device Mark regularly uses in his gospel where he divides one incident and sticks another in the middle so he can let them dialogue
and we can learn from both of them together.
In this case, the story of the fig tree is divided by the story of the clearing of the temple.
The clear invitation here is to compare the worship at the temple to the fig tree that is cursed. In the clearing of the temple Jesus denounces what he sees, calling it a den of robbers. The temple, which was supposed to be a source of life for Israel was being condemned as a place where thieves could hide in safety.
That could lead to a lot of interpretations, including the idea that temple worship was being cursed or that traditional Jewish faith was no longer “in season”: the suggestion that Judaism had run its course and was going to whither and die so God could replace it.
To understand where this might come from you have to remember when the gospels were being written. Christians and Jews were not yet separated as distinct faiths. The followers of Jesus were Jewish at first, but had expanded to include and welcome many Gentiles in the decades before Mark was writing.
All of this had led to a lot of religious debate and tensions were starting to build between the Christians and others in the synagogues they attended. The Christians were not shy about criticizing traditional Jewish teachings and practices; they were quick to proclaim how Jesus replaced the old ways.
Soon after Mark’s gospel was written the temple was destroyed and a whole branch of Jewish tradition was ended with it. Most of the teachers we call the Sadducees lost their lives to the Roman invaders. At the same time the branch we called the Essenes also died in an apocalyptic battle against Rome.
After that, the remaining Pharisee branch of Judaism gained authority
and gathered to define what Judaism would look like in exile, going forward without Jerusalem or the temple. Many Christian teachings were rejected by them and the two faiths formally began to separate.
This didn’t come out of space. It had been developing for years and the lesson of the cursing of the fig tree is part of that history.
You could compare this to the kind of language used when sports teams compete: a kind of trash talk; or to the rhetoric that is promoted in wartime when prejudices against the enemy are weaponized.
Early Christianity was under threat from Rome but its legitimacy could only be threatened by the faith that gave birth to Jesus: Judaism. Many would have seen this threat as something that could put our whole faith at risk.
One result of this is historically dreadful: Christianity started small and oppressed but became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
We became the oppressor.
So, all those bits of scripture that were written to make early believers feel justified in their faith morphed into a series of scriptural justifications for antisemitism which rulers both religious and secular have trotted out in every century since then to justify oppression of Jewish people.
One lesson to learn here is that it is not uncommon for people who have suffered to pass on that suffering once they get into a position of power. Inter-generational abuse is a terrible example of how this happens, within families and communities. It’s not a justification for what happens but it is a pattern that needs to be recognized and deliberately broken.
To that end, I consider it important to identify these sorts of scriptures
so we can see them for what they are and refuse to let them lead us into more abuse.
Nelson Mandela is a brilliant example of a leader who worked to break this cycle and he was inspired by what he learned in his Methodist Sunday School.
Another lesson to learn is how long misinformation can survive and how many generations can suffer because of prejudiced teaching. Any time we wonder about the inter-generational effects of the residential schools and want to ask when people will “get over it” we should remember this example of anti-Jewish teachings in early Christianity and the legacy of antisemitism that still goes on after almost 2000 years.
Most modern scholars don’t believe that Jesus did curse the fig tree, and I agree: it is out of character, and it doesn’t match his teachings. It better reflects what his followers would say to prop up Jesus’ position in their own faith journey: they wanted to replace traditional Judaism and had a hard time imagining living side by side in peace.
The more we study Jesus’ teachings and the principles he taught, the more we discover that we can live in peace with other faiths: not agreeing with their teachings, necessarily, but finding common ground and developing respectful dialogue instead of resorting to petty name-calling like describing them as withered fig trees.
I also hope we can take from this the understanding that we need to break the cycle of inter-generational abuse in society, in institutions, and in families.
The church has been part of that in many ways over the centuries and as history shows us it can take a long time to learn our lesson, to admit what has happened and start to break the cycle.
It can be hard for powerful people to take the high road: a past atrocity is easy to use as justification for hatred and for new atrocities that happen when vengeance is disguised as justice.
This still happens over and over and serves to underline a particular challenge for those who assume the mantle of authority. It also underlines the value of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation as ways to break ancient cycles of abuse and oppression.
This is an old problem and it is good that we are doing this work in these new times. We can learn from our past and try to create a future
where we can avoid those same old patterns and mistakes.