Signs and Their Signified

Living, as I do, just 150 miles or so from New York City and having, as I do, a pair of siblings who live within said city, I like to take the short journey down to the Big Apple once or twice each year.  I can’t go too often, though, because I consistently find myself overwhelmed by the place.  There is so much to do and see in that great metropolis that if I don’t go with a specific plan, I wind up paralyzed by the multiplicity of options.


I do recall, however, an early trip to Gotham, as a young boy, with one quintessential item on the tourist agenda.  We had to walk through Times Square at night.

Times Square, of course, is the shock and awe of the advertising world, where millions of eyes are stabbed by millions of flashes of neon light.  In many ways, it is a wonder of human ingenuity.

It doesn’t take long, however, before the mesmerizing din of marketing gives way to several subtle questions.  Would I feel as stimulated eating a McDonald’s hamburger as I do staring into these million watt golden arches?  Are the undergarments I wear beneath my jeans really deserving of a hundred foot billboard?  And then there’s the fifty foot bottle of glowing Coke labeled “The Real Thing,” which is slightly larger and more electric than the real thing I might buy in the bodega on the corner.

Some signs, you see, overstate their case.  And in doing so, they lessen the thing to which they point.


For too short a time, I lived in a small town 30 miles north of Boston.  It was rather quaint and rather affluent.  (As a seminary student at the time, I may have been quaint, but I was not affluent.)  Along the lone stretch of state highway that ran through town, after passing by the very small commercial zone, you would pass a nondescript driveway with a small–no, tiny–golden sign hanging along the roadside.  Hundreds of drivers pass it each day.  Few likely even notice it.

That little wooden sign, sits at the entrance to the Myopia Hunt Club, an exclusive country club founded in 1882.  It boasts one of the oldest continuously used polo grounds in the nation.  Accompanying that honor, the club is among the charter members of what is now the United States Polo Association.  Further, Myopia is the home of a renowned golf course, which played host to four US Open golf tournaments around the turn of the 20th century.

Some signs, you see, understate their case.  If you only knew the real value of what the sign points to, you would understand that no sign could really do it justice.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently in the gospel of John, famous for its use of “signs” that Jesus performs throughout the book.

The reader isn’t long into the narrative before she finds Jesus performing his first sign, changing water into wine at a wedding celebration (Jn 2:1-11).  It’s a display that astounds the groom’s guests and affects the hearts of Jesus’ disciples.

Not long after, Jesus heals a dying boy simply by giving the word (Jn 4:46-54).  The sick child isn’t even present, but suffering in a distant village.  Then, the story proceeds with the healing of a paralytic (Jn 5:1-15), the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:1-15), the opening of a blind man’s eyes (Jn 9), and the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn 11).

A cynical approach to the gospel might read these stories and look on them as one with some years under his belt looks on Times Square.  The signs are too grand, too perfect to possibly point to anything better.  Surely, Jesus is overstating his case.

But for those who have met Jesus, for those that read the gospel and experience the reality of Christ as they do, the realization slowly and subtly dawns that John’s report of Jesus’ works far undersell the real thing.  The believing reader finds herself nodding along with John’s concluding statement: “Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25).

If you only knew, she might whisper, the value of what the signs point to, you would know that no sign Jesus performed could have done himself justice.


Silly Jesus: Of Course There Are No Figs!

It’s the Lenten season, for those who pay attention to such things.  I do so from time to time.  But usually by the time I realize it’s Lent, it’s, well, already Lent.  So there’s that.

Nevertheless, many Christians who, you know, plan will be reading through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days.  My own church is doing a series focused on the original holy week.  This week’s message took us to Mark 11, in which Jesus ruffles the Temple’s feathers.

Those familiar with the passage will no doubt recall that on either side of the Temple story, there’s a curious little tale about Jesus and an unfortunate fig tree.  Jesus approaches the tree, finds it without any figs to munch, curses it, proceeds to the Temple to do his business, and then returns to the fig tree the next day to find it sad and withered.

Many astute readers have noticed for centuries that the whole deal with the fig tree has something to do with what Jesus does in the Temple.  The thought process goes something like this: “OK, so Jesus is furious with a fig tree that has no figs because it’s out of season.  So he curses the tree.  Weird, but OK.  Then he goes to the Temple and messes everything up because they’re robbing people.  Then he comes back to the tree and it’s dead.  So, I guess Jesus is cursing the Temple too?”

It’s hardly the clearest narrative in the gospels.

Among the zaniest bits in this story is the fact that Mark tells the reader its not even the season for figs (Mk 11:13).  It’s Passover season–springtime.  Of course there won’t be any fruit on the tree.  Silly Jesus.

But once we’ve read the story in this way, Jesus suddenly becomes cruel, cursing the tree for not doing what he couldn’t have expected from it in the first place.

But it could be that Mark is trying to say more (and something different) than we realize.  By mentioning a fig tree with no figs, he could be alluding to Jeremiah 8:13, in which God pronounces judgment on the nation of Israel:

I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord.  There will be no grapes on the vine.  There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither.  What I have given them will be taken from them (NIV).

Mark’s comment, then, isn’t about Jesus’ poor sense of timing.  It’s about the fact that Israel has no fruit, a sign of its judgment, a sign Jesus further acts out by strolling into the Temple, guns blazing.