Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Faith that kills trees...

Probably best if you read the previous post 'faith that moves mountains' first...
Mark 11v12-19
[12] The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. [13] Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. [14] Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it.

[15] On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, [16] and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. [17] And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: "'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

[18] The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. [19] When evening came, they went out of the city.
So here we have two things that appear out of character for Jesus
  1. An act of senseless cursing against a tree, and
  2. An apparent act of violence against people.
What's going on here?

John's gospel records Jesus clearing the temple at the start of his ministry (just after the water into wine incident):
John 2v13-16
[13] When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. [14] In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. [15] So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. [16] To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"
I have heard people commenting on Jesus's use of violence before. Especially the bit about the whip. But look at the text, the whip was used exclusively on the sheep & cattle, not on people. And when it came to the people he scattered their coins and overturned their tables. There is no record of violence against people. Yes, he was angry. Yes, he took action. But he didn't hurt or attack anyone.

So even in his anger, he is still the Prince of Peace. Whew!

But its the bit about the fig tree that still bothers me. Matthew tells it like this:
Matthew 21v18-22
[18] Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. [19] Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered.

[20] When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked.

[21] Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. [22]If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
If Jesus wanted to prove a point about the power of faith and prayer, couldn't he have done something good to demonstrate what faith can achieve? Instead he uses faith to destroy a perfectly innocent tree. Mark goes as far as to note that it wasn't even the time of year for fig trees to be bearing fruit. (I've heard some folk say that it wasn't unusual for some fig trees to have some fruit at this time of year, but I think that's really clutching at straws - according to the text itself there was no good reason to expect the tree to have any fruit, but Jesus curses it anyway).

I've heard it said how this tree is a kind of living parable of the temple as it is in the same part of the story - looks healthy, but was actually bearing no fruit - and it was really about the temple which Jesus declared 'may you never bear fruit again'; sure enough, in a few decades time, the temple was to be destroyed. It really did never bear fruit again.

But that still doesn't explain why Jesus should kill a perfectly innocent tree. He is never recorded as having killed anything else in any gospel, so why do it now?

I'm afraid I have a very human explanation to propose. I believe Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. Being divine, he knew what he was about to have to go through in the days ahead. Being human, his emotions must have been all over the place, I believe that this act of violence against the tree was just a way of releasing some tension. In Matthew 26v38 Jesus says "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" he even prayed for the cup to be taken from him - for God to change his plans. Simply, he did not want to be crucified and it was affecting him. Eventually the divine won over the human and he said "but not my will..." but that can't have been an easy choice. Indeed, I fully believe that he did have the choice to go on or go back, and he chose the way of death. Not an easy choice to make. And along the way he had to let off some steam. Some of this he channeled into clearing the temple, and some of it got unleashed on a poor tree.

I believe the gospel writers record this incident primarily because it happened. Also because it gives a good visual parable of the temple. But also because it shows just how human Jesus was.

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