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.