Sermon: It’s not about the fig tree.
This was preached for the Introduction to Preaching class at Yale Divinity School. The setting I imagined was: Setting: The only time this comes up in the TEC lectionary is in the Daily Office. So it’s not going to be heard on a Sunday morning unless we go off book. But. It does fit into a Holy Week theme. I more intend this to be preached at a Sunday service that’s not RCL based. I imagined my internship parish in Southport for the general structure and message, but a couple of the detail references are for the people in this particular room. I imagine perhaps an evening service that is perhaps a little more informal, not necessarily for youth only, but definitely inclusive of them. And thus I brought snacks (Fig Newtons).
When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God.
Whenever I hear this story, I am baffled. I just have so many questions. Why is this here, in the middle of the holy week narrative? Why a fig tree? Why does Mark make a point to tell us that it was not the season for figs?
Seriously, this is the one thing that’s always puzzled me about this passage. That Jesus went looking for figs on this tree even though it was Passover time. Fig time is in the summer in Israel. Not the spring. Were figs maybe Jesus’s favorite fruit, and he just wanted to eat one one more time before the crucifixion?
Is this story about a man coming to his limits, and knowing he won’t live to see the summer when the figs will be in season? The actions of a hungry, weary, traveler who just needs a snack? But then. Why does Jesus curse the fig tree rather than command it to bear fruit out of season?
Maybe there’s a symbolism to the fig tree? During the Protestant Reformation, the popular symbolic interpretation of this passage was to equate the fruitless fig tree with the Jewish people. And Jesus, seeing no spiritual fruit, symbolically curses the Jewish people, or at least the corrupt leaders in the temple, as he goes on to disrupt the moneychangers and teach the people himself, directly after his encounter with the tree. But this interpretation fails to account for the fact of Jesus’s own Jewishness and even in the cleansing of the moneychangers’ corruption, he did not destroy the temple, but stayed preaching and teaching. These are not the actions of someone who is cursing an entire nation to wither to the root. And indeed, Jesus himself gives an explanation for the cursing of the fig tree, and it has nothing to do with replacing Israel with Christendom.
But first, let’s take a closer look at what figs even are doing.
Growing up in California’s Central Valley, I was near enough to agriculture to appreciate how touchy it is to keep a fruit orchard. California, especially the Central Valley, has a climate very much like Israel. Many of the same crops flourish, and the seasons seem to be approximately the same. But as much as we’ve cultivated and controlled the land with technology and sweat, it’s still always contingent on the uncontrollable. Always worrying about drought and irrigation in the summer. Figuring out new ways to deal with frost in the winter. Wildfires and mudslides not only destroying land, but the roads used to get the fruit to the people.
When God cursed Adam to a life of toil for even a meager living, it wasn’t a joke. Taking care of fig trees is no joke. It’s not something that a single farmer can do alone, but it takes a whole society to get from a fig tree to a ripe fig to a fig newton.
I don’t want to talk about agriculture all day. But if you want to talk about breba figs coming before the main crop or the life cycle of fig wasps, I will be more than happy to go on at length about these in the refectory. The thing I want to get back to is what Jesus says the fig tree is all about. When the disciples see the fig tree the next day, after they’ve gone to the temple and upset the whole religious economy, they see that the tree is dead and withered to the root. What even. Jesus. What did you do??
I kinda wonder if Jesus was also scrambling for meaning in that moment too. We’ve seen Jesus make food in the feeding of the however many thousands. Why didn’t he just make some figs? This is not like Lazarus where the fig tree has died so that Jesus can raise it up again. Jesus didn’t make the fig tree into a living symbol of the new life that was to come. This is something else.
Ancient understandings of this passage point to God’s dominion over nature, and how this indicates that Jesus shares in that dominion. Fine. Cool. This is a thing God can do. And Jesus is also God.
But nope. That’s not what Jesus says this weird miracle means. He says, oh, this fig tree? You find *this* shocking? Even after everything you’ve seen? Even after the walking on water and the transfiguration and the feeding of the 5000 and the everything else I’ve done? All the miracles *you’ve* done? Even after all the miracles experienced by the people of God? All the stories of floods and parted seas and promised children in old age? You find this dead tree amazing? If you actually believed what we preach, you’d be able to tell that mountain to jump into the sea. And it would jump. You could ask God to do anything.
Wait. Wait. Just a second Jesus. This sounds a whole lot like the prosperity gospel. Do you mean to tell me that if I ask God for an escalator up Canner, there’ll be one before Morning Prayer tomorrow? If I believe that it will happen? What about my aunt who’s sick? Will my prayer make her instantly able to overcome something she’s been struggling with for decades? And the family fleeing violence in their home country? Will their prayers transport them through immigration with approved asylum requests? Jesus, I don’t know if our prayers are just weaker now, or what, but it doesn’t seem to work like you say it will.
Is God a wish granting genie, if we believe it? Is that the problem with this generation, with our scientific age, that we believe in testable facts but not in God?
I can’t understand prayer that way. I do have faith in God. That what I ask for in prayer will be granted. But not that my wishes will be granted. What Jesus says at the end is the key to my understanding of prayer. [Read it] Forgive other people. God will forgive you. Prayer is not about doing this alone. This doesn’t happen alone. This happens in community.
Community doesn’t happen with the act of a mighty prayer warrior alone in their prayer closet. This happens as an act of mutual forgiveness and cooperation of the church. People in communion with each other. Prayer is definitely personal and internal. It changes the heart. And that changes how we relate to one another. That gives us the grace to forgive in the same way that God gives grace to us.
But *what* does this have to do with the fig tree? Figs are a weird fruit. They don’t just grow from blossoms like apples or stone fruits. They *are* the flowers. Or, the flowers are internal to the fruit. There is perhaps some symbolism there, where the potential in the seeds and the beauty of the blossoms is only seen in the opening of the fruit. Fig blossoms are internal to the fruits. That’s weird, biologically, but also points to the way that prayer changes the inside of us. Prayers are not wishes, they are the internal blossoming that become the sweet fruit of community.
Jesus cursed the fig tree. Why is still baffling to me. Maybe because he was upset and hungry and sad. Maybe because he wanted to shock the disciples into listening to him talk about the profound power of prayer one last time. Maybe so that this weird story would make it into the canon of scripture and we could read it today and reflect on our role and duty to the community. Because a fig tree is not the project of a solitary soul. A fig tree requires a community to care for it and to turn the fruit into fig newton’s.
Is it not written, my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?