Friday, March 4, 2011

The Withered Fig

What are we to make of the fig tree in today’s gospel reading from Mark? On my first reading, I’ve always see it as a warning to us, that we had better bear fruit. Interpreting the fig tree this way, though, causes Jesus to come off as capricious and petulant for cursing a tree that is not bearing fruit when it isn’t even in season.

As usual, however, there’s much more going on here than is initially apparent. Consider the timeline given by Mark. On the first day, Jesus comes into Jerusalem, spends some time at the Temple, and then retires to Bethany. On the second day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem, cursing the fig tree on the way, then enters the Temple and chases out the vendors and money-changers. Again, he retires to Bethany. On the third day, he again heads for Jerusalem, and the disciples notice that the fig tree is withered.

Note that the timeline in Matthew 21 is a little different. I’m not going to try to deal with that right now. I’m concentrating on the fig tree.

In both gospels, the cursing of the fig tree is within the context of the cleansing of the Temple. It seems clear to me, therefore, that in this instance, the fig tree represents not the individual believer, but the Temple and the Old Covenant system of sacrifices associated with it. The Temple might appear outwardly healthy and might have born fruit in the past, but its days have come to an end. The withering of the fig tree foreshadows the destruction of the Temple.

There are, of course, other questions that are raised by Mark’s account. Why does he note that Jesus was hungry? Why does Jesus cleanse the Temple on the second day and not the first? Is it possible that Jesus was hungry because he had spent the first day and night in fasting and prayer, seeking guidance from the Father regarding what to do about what he had seen in the Temple on the first day?

I dunno. I’d love to hear some reasonable theories. The only thing that I have left to say is that I find some of the arguments that Jesus cursed the fig tree as a demonstration of his power or that his hunger was merely the supposition of the disciples to be unconvincing.

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