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The Cursing of the Fig Tree

December 2, 2012 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Gospel of Mark

Topic: Faith Passage: Mark 11:12–25

Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern that whenever I start a home project – whether it’s doing a home repair or putting something together that someone got for Christmas or whatever – I start out optimistic that it’s going to go well – I can do this. I’ve got the three tools that I know how to use: hammer, screwdriver, and wrench and I’m actually thinking this might even be kinda fun.
But invariably along the way I miss some important step or I attach two things that aren’t supposed to be attached and then I have to spend 10-15 minutes undoing what I just spent 10-15 minutes doing. So at this point I’m a little annoyed, but still confident that I can regroup and get this thing done.

But then comes this phenomenon where the project refuses to comply. I don’t know if this happens to you and it looks different from project to project, but something refuses to do what the instructions say it will do. Two holes refuse to line up for the screw to go in. A bracket doesn’t fit the way the instructions says it will. Two pieces of wood won’t go together the way the directions say no matter what I do. And after a half hour of trying to get this thing to comply I start to talk to myself: I can’t believe this. Why won’t this stupid thing go together? Why won’t that stupid screw go in? How in the world is that stupid wire supposed to attach to that thingamabob? And who wrote these stupid instructions, anyway?

About that time I get this feeling that the project is out to get me. That it’s purposely opposing me. I begin to imagine that these inanimate objects are deliberately conspiring against me. And I start to look at the hammer and think how good it would feel to teach that wood or plastic or porcelain a lesson it will NEVER forget! Just smash it to pieces and see if it ever opposes me again.

Now listen, I know that inanimate objects can’t think. They can’t really conspire against me. That’s just a product of my angry heart not getting it’s way and wanting to lash out at something. If I acted out on that it would not only be immature, it would be foolish (though I admit it might feel good for a few minutes).

But this is why the passage that we are looking at this morning seems so surprising. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry and passes by a fig tree in full bloom. Now it’s too early in the year for figs, but it’s possible that Jesus is hoping there might be some early figs which were considered a delicacy. When there are no figs on the tree, it looks as though Jesus gets angry at this poor tree, as if it had deliberately conspired against Jesus to get his hopes up only to disappoint them. And so, in what seems vindictive resentment, Jesus curses the tree to never produce fruit again.” Since you don’t have fruit for me today, may no one ever eat from you again!” Somehow it seems beneath Jesus and because of this several scholars have ridiculed the story as being a myth that somehow crept into Mark’s gospel.

New Testament scholar T.W. Manson writes: It is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper…” and well known scholar William Barclay writes, the story does not seem worthy of Jesus. There seems to be a petulance in it. Is this a mythical story that somebody put in later on? Is it a case of Jesus just having a bad day? Not long afterward Jesus starts overturning the money carts in the temple. Maybe Mark just caught Jesus in an irritable mood.

A Marcan Sandwich

Well, obviously this isn’t a case of Jesus having a bad day - there is a much deeper meaning to this story than ill temper and petulance. First of all, it helps to see that this is another case of what we call a Markan Sandwich, a literary device that Mark uses a lot in his gospel where he inserts a story within a story, and the inside story helps to interpret the outside story and the outside story helps to interpret the inside story. So you have the fig tree and the temple and then back to the fig tree, but the three stories are related to each other. Taken together what we discover is that the cursing of the fig tree isn’t a case of angry resentment – it’s meant to be a prophetic parable acted out in real life.

Israel as the fig tree

Israel was often symbolized by the fig tree throughout the OT such as in Hosea 9:10

Like grapes in the wilderness,
I found Israel.
Like the first fruit on the fig tree
in its first season,
I saw your fathers. Hosea 9:10

When Jesus saw the fig tree with its promising leaves but no fruit, he saw it as a parable of the spiritual state of Israel. Maybe he had Jer. 8:13 in mind which says:

When I would gather them, declares the LORD,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered,
and what I gave them has passed away from them.” Jer. 8:13

Like a fig tree with leaves but no fruit, Israel made a great show of their religious piety, but when Jesus came to examine them, he found there was no fruit of righteousness. When Jesus cursed the fig tree it was a prophetic warning of the coming judgment on Israel.

We see the connection when we come to the middle of the Markan sandwich, where Jesus enters the temple (which is the symbol of the religious life of all Israel) and he finds it overrun with money changing and commerce. They had a magnificent temple and a rigidly observed religious system and outwardly righteous and devoted religious leaders – plenty of leaf – but it was barren of any fruit of righteousness. Israel was sadly lacking in obedience, in love for God, in hearts that were walking humbly with their God.

All of that was symbolized by the corruption that was going on in the temple. In Matt 21 we see that the Pharisees are offended at children crying out the praises of God in the temple but don’t mind at all the Temple court being filled with the noise and commerce of the merchants. The temple had become a living symbol of Israel’s apostate heart towards God.

It’s also very interesting to note where the merchandizers were located. They weren’t actually in the temple, they were set up in the court of the Gentiles which was the only place in the temple area that Gentile’s were allowed to come and seek the one true God of Israel. But that court had been turned into a bazaar! Jesus quotes one line from Isaiah 56 when he says, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.” When we read more of the context of Isaiah 56 we see the heart of the Lord that Israel was to be a light to the nations – that every tongue and tribe and people might come to know the Lord through Israel’s faithful witness. Listen to Isa. 56:6-7

6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD...(jump to verse 7)
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.” Isa 56:6-7

Jesus came, not to save Israel only, but to be the light of the world and to give his life as a ransom for all people and it was always God’s intention for Israel to be a light to the nations that many would come from every race to know Him through their witness. But for all their religious leaf, they had no fruit to show. In fact, it is ironic that Jesus’ zeal for his Father’ house, and for the nations to come and know God, it was that same zeal that sealed the Pharisee’s resolve to kill Jesus. Their hearts had grown to love their religious system, and to hate God. Jesus’ curse of the fig tree prophesied the coming judgment of God on Israel and especially it’s corrupt religious system. That judgment that would be externally fulfilled in AD 70 when Jerusalem was overrun, the temple destroyed, and the people of Israel dispersed throughout the nations.

Dead religion vs a living relationship

There is a warning in this for the church today and for each of us – don’t be a leafy tree without fruit. Don’t focus your Christian faith on all the external stuff, the stuff that we can do without God actively, powerfully at work in our lives. Stuff like going to church, reading the Bible, praying long prayers, knowing all the right “Christian lingo” to say. These things aren’t wrong, but we need to look deeper and broader: is there fruit? Are we bearing the fruit of a living faith? Are we growing in love? Are we growing in compassion? Are we growing in righteousness?

Fruit isn’t something we can produce on our own- the only way we can bear fruit is to be vitally connected to God. Jesus said in John 15 that he is the vine, we are the branches. The branches can’t bear fruit unless they are attached to the vine – and that’s what Jesus says.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

If we are abiding (attached) to Christ in a living, loving, faith-filled relationship, we will bear fruit. It’s impossible for us not to. Now, depending on how closely we are abiding will determine how fruitful we will be, but for all believers there must be fruit. And if we are apart from Christ we can do nothing – fruit isn’t what we’re supposed to bear for Christ, it’s what we’re supposed to bear by Christ.

If there is no fruit, Jesus says there is judgment: If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers (think the fig tree) and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned (vs. 6). Either there is a living and fruit-bearing relationship with Christ, or there isn’t, which means no fruit and eventual judgment.

Let’s close out the passage. The next day, as they pass by the fig tree, Peter sees that it has withered and died and he says, “look Rabbi! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” – he is surprised that Jesus’ curse became reality so quickly. Notice that Jesus says nothing about its prophetic symbolism to Israel. You’d think the other side of the Markan sandwich would tie the whole thing up and clearly explain what it all meant, but Jesus leaves them to interpret the meaning of the parable and instead focuses on faith and answered prayer. In essence he says, “Peter, don’t be surprised that the tree I cursed is withered today. Have faith in God and whatever you ask will be done…” Was the curse really about faith? It seems as if Jesus goes off on a rabbit trail. But when we take a closer look we see that, rather than go off into a criticism of apostate Israel, he reinforces the spiritual life-producing pursuit of God.

Spiritual life isn’t produced by our focusing on our lack of life, it’s produced by pursuing God in faith. And Jesus highlights three necessary components of the heart that is pursuing a relationship with God:

1. Faith
2. Prayer
3. Forgiveness

He’s pointing to the power of a living, abiding, depending, faith-motivated obeying relationship with God. True faith comes from God – we can never truly have faith for something that God hasn’t put into our hearts – and if He has put it into our hearts than even if it’s as impossible as telling a mountain to be cast into the sea it will be done.

There is a relationship between believing and receiving – if we don’t believe much we probably won’t receive much. Prayer needs to be accompanied by faith and true faith comes from God. Eph 2 says that faith is a gift from God and Romans 10 says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. To believe God we need to be pressing in to hear from God – faith is a fruit of relationship. So prayers that have faith come from a growing relationship with God. Even if all you have is a small amount of faith, and you pray weak prayers with weak faith, you’re alive! Jesus encourages you and me to grow – have faith in God! – but he doesn’t declare us dead.

And there is a relationship between being forgiven and forgiving. Verse 25 takes another unexpected turn as Jesus connects a living fruitful faith with forgiveness. But it’s really not unexpected when we realize that our entire relationship with God is based on forgiveness. Through faith in Jesus we are forgiven. We aren’t forgiven because we forgive others – as if forgiving was a way of purchasing forgiveness from God.

Forgiveness isn’t a payment we pay to be forgiven, it’s a fruit that comes from experiencing forgiveness. When our eyes are opened to see that we deserve judgment, but believe that by repenting of our sin and trusting in the finished work of Christ we have received forgiveness from all our sin, then we also see that forgiving others what comparatively little wrongs they have committed against us is the least we can do. Forgiveness flows from the heart that has been forgiven. If we have no forgiveness to give, if there is a permanent blockage to forgive, it is a frightening evidence that we have not received forgiveness.

Forgiven people forgive people. It’s a fruit of righteousness – not our righteousness, but God’s righteousness at work in us.

All spiritual life flows from a relationship with God – not going to church or reading the Bible or praying. Those things are essential to strengthen our relationship with God, but without a relationship with God they are just leaves on a tree with no fruit.

But Jesus came, not to curse us, but to bless us. Jesus bore our curse on the cross so that we may know the blessing of his life in us. The blessing of salvation. The blessing of forgiveness. The blessing of mercy. The blessing of adoption and of friendship with God. The blessing of fruit that lasts. And brings glory to God.

Leaves us with a question: are you abiding in Christ? Are you pursuing a vital relationship with God? Is there some unforgiveness or other sin right now that is blocking your relationship? God calls you to repent. Confess it to God and turn away from it.

Let’s pray.