by Daniel Harrell
Anybody who objects to the idea of God ever being in a bad mood has clearly never read the Bible. Slate magazine editor David Plotz read through the Bible and recorded his impressions in a book he ironically entitled The Good Book. Reviewer Rich Cohen summed up Plotz’s take on the Bible like this: “What’s the deal with Yahweh? Is the guy crazy or what? First he’s schmoozing, walking in the garden and whatnot, then he’s so angry he turns into a column of smoke, and here comes the scary voice, and here come the waterworks, the smiting and rivers of blood, and don’t get me started on his weird obsession with the firstborn. This is a God who loves the camper but hates the counselor — see all the little brothers who prosper (David, Joseph, et al.), and all the big brothers who get smoked. And yes, I know, I was supposed to put lamb’s blood on the doorjamb so the angel of death would pass over, but I am human, I was tired, I forgot. Does that mean the kid had to die? And what the heck does Yahweh even mean, anyway? Forty years to cross 120 miles of desert? They shouldn’t call him Yahweh, they should call him Wrong Way.”
Many might come to the same conclusion about Jesus in tonight’s red-lettered chapter in Mark’s gospel. “What’s the deal with Jesus? Is the guy crazy or what? First he’s all smiles, riding in all Messiah-like on a donkey, waving to the adoring crowds who throw off their coats and cheer him with palm-palms. But then he goes and gets so grumpy that he yells at a helpless fig tree, after which throws a tantrum in the Temple, overturning tables and benches of the people who work there. Talk about a bad mood. And don’t get me started on his weird ideas about prayer. “Have faith in God and you can tell this mountain to throw itself into the sea.” Are you kidding me? Yes, I know, “if I just have faith and believe then it will be mine.” But we all know how well that works out in real life. He’s just messing with my head. What the heck does Jesus even mean, anyway? Get hailed as a king only to go off on your elders and tell them you don’t have to talk to them even if they are in charge? They shouldn’t call him Jesus, they should call him Gee Whiz.
Since it’s Palm Sunday, I’m moving ahead in our red-letter series to Mark’s account of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem. For the entire gospel Jesus’ fans have been trying to get him to let them treat him like a king, and here he seems to finally give in. However, the same fans must have become severely disillusioned once their king goes kong in the Temple courts, making a huge fracas as he chased out those who bought and sold there. We usually interpret this as Jesus condemning the commercialization of faith, as an indictment against Christian investment schemes or health and wealth preaching. But in fact, buying and selling were necessary parts of proper Temple business. The Temple was where animal sacrifices to God occurred. These sacrifices happened over and over hundreds of times a day for various purposes, the Temple system was all about having a right relationship with the holy God. In accordance with Torah, sacrificial animals had to be perfect. Relating to God cost you the best of your herds, flocks and crops—animals without any spot or blemish. But if you lived any distance from Jerusalem, getting your bull or goat to the Temple without dinging it up was pretty difficult. Therefore as a service to the faithful, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or bird at the door. You’d bring your cash, change it into Temple currency, buy your bird and give it to a priest to sacrifice. It was all very convenient and very kosher. So what’s the problem?
Mark explains by using one of his favorite literary devices: the Mark Sandwich. Throughout this gospel, Mark sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here, Jesus’ cursing a fig tree provides bread for the Temple clearing meat. In verse 12, a hungry Jesus is looking for some breakfast. Finding a fig tree in leaf, he also found that it had no fruit, sort of like getting to a Dunkin Donuts only to find they’ve run out of coffee. Like any of us do whenever we’re hungry, Jesus gets irritated and curses the fig tree (a pretty pointless thing for most people to do). However being Jesus, you’d think he could have just told the tree to pop out a few Newtons and be done with it. But instead he just tells the tree to die. Jesus comes off as petty and petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. Not that it could have had any fruit. Verse 13 says it wasn’t even fig season. Jesus was clearly barking at the wrong tree. Except that what Jesus does is not about the tree but what the tree represents. That’s right, the fig tree is figurative. Jesus is telling another parable, only this time he’s acting it out for the disciples to see (since they never seemed to understand the parables Jesus simply told).
That the fig tree is fruitless is the parable’s point. Throughout the Bible, God’s people are compared to fruit trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce fruitful deeds in accordance with their redeemed nature. Yet in accordance with their human nature, God’s people persist in resisting God’s grace, treating his favor as favoritism and as permission to do as they please. The prophet Jeremiah had stood in Temple centuries prior and conveyed God’s displeasure. “You have no shame,” he howled, “you do not even know how to blush. When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave you has passed away from you.” Their sin ran deep―violating every law on the stone tablets. They cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied, swore falsely and chased after shiny idols made of metal and stone. But the topper was the way they used the Temple system to cover their rear: sin and sacrifice only to go out and sin again. Jeremiah yells, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to idols, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”
Jesus quotes this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you understand how the people treated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so furious. By turning the tables and blocking traffic, Jesus effectively brought a halt to the sacrificial charade. He blocks their access to God and throws a wrench in the whole relationship. Jesus also quotes Isaiah, saying that the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” The idea from the beginning was that outsiders would always be welcome inside. The Lord is the Lord of all people. God did choose Israel alright, but they were to be an example of his grace, not sole beneficiaries. Somehow they let it all go to their heads, so that by the time we get to Jeremiah, the Temple had become like some exclusive country club. God’s people, rather than putting out the welcome mat for their unbelieving neighbors, treated the Temple as a sanctuary from their unbelieving neighbors. Refusing to let his house be so mistreated, God ironically let it be leveled by the very pagan neighbors that God’s people tried to keep out. In time the Temple was rebuilt, but the people’s behavior never changed. So Jesus brings down Jeremiah’s curse again.
Inasmuch as Israel’s story is our story too, we should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we treat church as a sanctuary for the faithful; as a safe-haven to protect us from the secular world. We should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we take our relationship with God for granted, treating grace as insurance against our own bad behavior and bad choices. While God’s grace is his free gift and there’s nothing you can do to earn it, you still must do something to show you’ve received it. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth, “therefore we make it our practice to please Christ.” If pleasing Christ is not your practice, the implication is that your insurance may be like something from AIG. Grace is about more than being declared “not guilty” before God, grace makes you into a whole different person. If God’s forgiving your sins hasn’t changed you, it may be that you’ve not yet been forgiven. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The next day they came upon that figless tree again, and Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” Here’s the other slice of bread for the Mark sandwich. It tastes a lot like Jeremiah too. “While you were doing your sinful deeds,” declared the Lord, “I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen. I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore I will now do to the house that bears my Name, to this temple you trust in, to this place I gave to you and your ancestors, I will [destroy it and] thrust you from my presence.” God let the Temple be leveled once. He would do so again. This is the lesson of the fig tree—except that Jesus’ response to Peter seems off track. “Have faith in God,” he says, “and you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea’ and it will be done for him.” In other words, shriveling a tree is nothing. Believe without doubting and you can transform entire landscapes. Of course if you’ve ever tried that you know that’s not right. I can pray all I want and I still can’t even get a houseplant to wilt (unless I stop watering it too).
This leads us to that seeming disconnect between faith and prayer that we explored a couple weeks back. While Jesus does say here in verse 24, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” common experience teaches that this is rarely the case, which obviously means that nobody has enough faith. Most mountains remain where they’ve always been, diseases go uncured, marriages unrepaired and jobs unfound. But even if we had the faith to move mountains, that’s no guarantee that they’d move. There is a strong link between prayer and faith, but not always the way we like to link it. It’s not the amount of faith that matters as much as the direction in which it is pointed. And once you start pointing at Christ, your faith and your prayers start to change too. Faith in Christ results in prayer like Christ—prayer that first and foremost says to God: “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” as hard as that may sometimes be.
But why the digression on prayer anyway? I thought Jesus was talking about the destruction of the Temple. It is important to note that Jesus does not say faith in God can move any mountain, but specifically this mountain, which for the disciples hearing Jesus say it in the shadow of the withered fig tree would have been the Temple mountain. Jesus is still on his jeremiad. “Anyone who says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.” Because it’s going to happen anyway. About 40 years after Jesus said it, Rome would sack the Temple as flat as the Babylonians leveled it some 600 years before. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Taking for granted that the disciples were able to put tree and Temple together (which I know may be a reach given Mark’s portrayal of the disciples), it may be that their takeaway was not that they too could wilt plants and move mountains, but that they could sock it to their own enemies. Why take out a tree when you can take down your obnoxious neighbor, your conniving ex-wife or the boss who just laid you off? Knowing how human hurts crave vengeance, Jesus quickly adds a caveat in verse 25: “When you pray, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your sins too.” For a guy in such a bad mood, this is a remarkable concession. He angrily kills a tree to predict the end of relationship between God and sinners, then prays to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and say forgive? It does sound so strange until you remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. Both were the dwelling places for God. And both would be destroyed. The curse Jesus puts on the fig tree and the Temple is the curse he puts on himself. As it says in Deuteronomy, “cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” But Jesus hangs on a tree not to end the relationship between God and sinners, Jesus hangs on a tree to restore the relationship. He becomes the perfect sacrifice for all time and for all people. Remember, prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is getting you to do what God wants, as hard as that may sometimes be. And what does God want? He wants to forgive sins and draw all people to himself. Even though it kills him to do it.