Would Jesus Curse Your Fig Tree?

In the first few chapters of John’s Revelation, Jesus addresses the seven churches: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write….” “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write….” As well, he asks John to write messages to the churches in Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. In addressing each of these churches individually, he addresses the entire Church – what we need to watch out for, what we must be rebuked about, and what we are doing well on.

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Yellowstone Wilderness; Photo by Patricia Verbovszky

Whenever followers of Jesus read these first few chapters, the question hopefully comes up of what Jesus would say to our church today. Would it be an encouraging word? Would it be a rebuke? Would it be a warning?

Since I live in the United States, I often ask, “What would Jesus say to write to the angel of the church in North America?” That’s certainly a loaded, but important, question. I’m sure Jesus would both rebuke and encourage. But I think he would also say that we’re a confused church and that we’re wandering all over the wilderness.

Here’s another way to ask the question: If Jesus was on the way to a meeting of the North American church, and while on the way he saw a fruit tree, would he curse it?

It’s what he did while on the way to the temple.

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. -Mark 11:12-14, NRSV

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” -Mark 11:20-21, NRSV

Would Jesus actually curse your fig tree?

It seems like a harsh question. It’s a question that many people have a hard time even asking because the idea of Jesus cursing a harmless tree goes against the popular narrative of a culturally hippy Jesus who gives everyone nice feelings of rainbows, butterflies, skittles, sunshine, and unicorns growing in our tummies, and says yes to whatever so long as whatever makes our minds happy and our hearts flutter.

Mark and the other gospels actually tell us a different story of Jesus. Jesus is one who loves unconditionally, forgives, heals, and makes people whole, but also one who challenges authority, debates with a sharp mind, grows impatient and angry, and one who strikes terror into the hearts of disciples and townspeople with his demonstrations of power. The wealthy young man man who came to Jesus even went away grieving, the Pharisees wanted him dead, and the crowds were calling for him to be crucified.

Jesus convicts and asks for hearts to change, and that can be painful.

And, yes, Jesus is also one who curses a helpless fig tree.

When he comes back the next day, it’s withered away, down to the root, and on it’s way to death.

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Tree Roots; Photo by Patricia Verbovszky

There’s a reason, though, that Jesus curses the tree. Jesus has been known to act out parables before, such as when he healed the blind man in two stages to show that the disciples had not been understanding clearly the first time around. He is doing the same here – bringing a parable and a lesson to life.

The first day in Jerusalem, Jesus entered on a colt, went to the temple, and left. The second day, Jesus passed by the fig tree, cursed it, and went to the temple where he caused mayhem, overthrew tables, and cursed the place. Then he left. The third day, Jesus passed by the fig tree and it was withered away. He went to the temple again where members of the Sanhedrin asked him his authority. He clearly demonstrated his authority when he cursed the fig tree and it withered.

The fig tree represents the temple, the temple system, and everything that went along with it. It’s reasonable to conclude that some of the main reasons for Jesus cursing it were corruption and religious leadership that were leading the people of Israel astray, as well as the possibility that temple ministry that did not allow for gentiles to worship in the way accorded by the law.

Additionally, by Mark’s account, these events occurred only a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. More importantly, with his death and resurrection, the temple system would be obsolete and no longer the place of God. Mark 13 even records this account between Jesus and a disciple:

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Mark 13:1-2, NRSV

If the fig tree represents the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day, what would Jesus say to the fig tree of our modern Christian religious system?

This fig tree grew in the spring. The tree would have been leafy and, if it had any fruit, it wouldn’t have been edible at that time. It would not have grown good fruit until late summer. From a distance, the tree appeared healthy; but when Jesus got to it, the tree either had inedible fruit or no fruit at all.

What kind of fruit is your church growing? What kind of fruit is the church in North America growing?

Have we ended up with inedible crops of self-righteousness that say, “Look at me! Look at us!” Or do our trees produce edible crops of true righteousness from Jesus Christ and the Spirit that point back to God?

Are we more concerned about maintaining systems and fruit that look delicious on the outside, but meanwhile a worm has eaten out the inside, and when we take a bite, the fruit is actually rotten?

Have we become a church that is run either by Pharisees or Sadducees, both pointing fingers at the other, while we miss the point of what it means to be truly like Christ?

Are we a church that is singularly focused on Jesus, allowing him and his Spirit to lead and breathe life into us? Or are we too wrapped up in ourselves and our interpretations of whatever the hot topic is to realize that we are lost, wandering in about 30 different directions all over the forest, and arguing about how to hold the compass?

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Yellowstone Forest; Photo by Patricia Verbovszky

What is your fig tree like? Would Jesus curse it? Or would Jesus bless it?

I know we all want to Jesus to bless our tree. It’s our gut reaction to say that, of course, Jesus would bless it. And I’m sure there are some that would do all sorts of theological dancing to justify Jesus blessing our various trees, no matter that kind of inedible fruit was growing on them. Obviously no one wants Jesus to curse the tree.

But he did. And he didn’t even ask it to get better. He cursed it. And it withered away, all the way down to its roots.

These are words that need to be reflected on through prayer and time with Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus’ actions here are challenging and convicting, especially for our modern church. It’s a passage in scripture that should be taken seriously by any local church. But especially for the church in North America, this enacted parable can be a hard one to swallow.

The edible, enriching fruit of Jesus Christ is out there. Go after it. In some places, Jesus would bless the fig tree. Unfortunately, though, there are other places where Jesus would walk by the fig tree and say, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” -Mark 4:25, NRSV

For more exegesis on the fig tree in Mark 11, see “Clearing Up Confusion In Cursing.”

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Humid Forest Paths

I had the opportunity to share this message with the West Chester Church of the Nazarene this morning. I hope that as you read it, you will be challenged to be a “doer of the word.”
….

“It was not too long ago that in the hot, humid countryside of Central America, there were two small children walking along a forest path. The path was half in the shade, half in the sun. By now, the little girl was almost beginning to wish that it would rain again, just to give them some relief from the hot temperatures and the humidity. As they walked, a snake warming itself on the sunny part of the path was disturbed by the two humans’ presence and it slithered back into the forest, not wanting to be bothered by the two small, thin human-shaped creatures.

“The two children had nothing. Well, they almost had nothing except for the clothes on their backs and the pants that they were wearing, but even those were pretty tattered by now. And it was not too long before that that those two children had just a couple pieces of fruit to eat and a piece of bread between them; but those little kids devoured those two sweet, delicious pieces of fruit, along with the semi-stale bread, almost the second they had received them from the poor man in the village they had been walking through.

“Somewhere, either in the village the two small children had already passed through or the village that they were coming up upon, the little girl thought for a moment that she could smell the aroma of coffee, similar to the aroma of coffee that her mother and father used to make before… well… before…. The little girl did not want to think about it. She looked at her brother and grabbed his hand. The two were alone now. Their mother was gone. And they had not seen their father in years. Their mother never talked about it, but the little boy, who was just a few years older than his sister, and who was just old enough to start realizing what was happening in the world around him, had figured out that it was not too long ago that there had been some sort of violence in the area where his village was. People from the outside, modern world, might call it a civil war, or maybe a drug war, or something similar and along those lines, but the little boy did not know about all of those things quite yet. He just knew that it was some kind of act of violence that taken his father away. But his mother, she was crying as she sent the two children away from their home. He did not know why or how, but deep down he knew that it would just be him and his sister, and somehow they had to make it in this world.

“That man in the previous village had been so nice; even the boy could tell that the man was poor and did not have much, but as the two little children passed by on the path through the small town in the hot humid weather, even the old man who wore such ragged clothes took pity on the boy and the girl, and just before taking a bite out of the delicious fruit himself, and out of the corner of his eye, he had seen the two kids walking, barely smiling and thin, as if they themselves had not had much food to eat either; and he knew within his heart that he could not eat his small meager lunch while these two kids had nothing. The boy took the fruit and the bread from the man who so graciously offered it, and he and his sister scarfed them up almost immediately. It had satisfied their hunger for now, but it would not be long before the two of them would be hungry again as they continued to walk on the hot, humid, forest path, half covered by shade and half engulfed by the blazing tropical sun.

“Again, the girl noticed the aroma of coffee in the air, reminding her of her mother who had been so long gone. She tried to think just how long it had been, but could not tell exactly. Had it been weeks? Had it been months already? She squeezed her brother’s hand even harder. By now the boy had noticed the smell of the coffee in the air as well, and it too brought back memories that had not totally slipped away through the dreary days on the mountain paths. He did not know exactly what would happen, but at least for the sake of his sister, this little boy would pretend that he knew that everything would be fine.

“By now, they saw the village where the smell of the coffee was coming from. A slight smile crept across both the faces of the boy and the girl, brought to them unconsciously by the memories that were almost unknowingly being brought to the very backs of their minds, though hunger was still on the fronts of their minds. A small house came into view behind the trees. It had already been many hours since they last ate that small meager meal of a couple pieces of fruit and a piece of semi-stale bread, and both of their stomachs were beginning to tighten in their yearning to satisfy their hungry diets. The boy looked at his sister and squeezed her hand, now smiling. The boy started to walk faster towards the direction of the house, his sister almost directly on his heels. “Surely,” he thought, “surely they will give us something to eat.” The two got closer and closer to the house, the smell of coffee permeating the air, and the smell of bread and fruit and roasting meat growing stronger. Through a window he saw a woman, and as he looked toward her, the woman looked up, and caught the eyes of the two small children that were coming in her direction.

“Immediately she began to frown and yell something at them. The boy had heard it so many times before. The door opened and the woman and another man came out, both of them still yelling something, motioning with their hands and pointing away from the house as they yelled at the two small kids. The smile disappeared from the boys face, he looked to the ground and began to turn around. Another similar feeling, a sinking feeling, was beginning to rise within his stomach, but that feeling of heartache, it combined with hunger just long enough to make him forget about his and his sister’s hunger as the sadness welled within him, forcing a tear to form in the boy’s eye. He looked at his sister; she knew what was happening, for there were already tears in her eyes. There would be no food tonight. They had already eaten their meal for the day and that would be it. The next priority for the boy would simply be to find a somewhat safe place for the two to sleep, just like they had done for so many other countless nights as they wandered from forest village to forest village in the humid countryside.”

At this point please open your Bibles to James 1:19-27.

James 1:19-27 (NRSV)

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.
25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unsustained by the world.

“It was at that point, that as the heat of the afternoon began to fade and the sun was just starting to make its descent in the hot, barren sky, and when the two children had walked a little bit further, that the boy saw another building; it was a somewhat vaguely familiar building, but it had been such a long time since the two kids had been in one like this, that they simply did not know what to expect if they were to knock on its door. The building was small and not fancy by any means, but to the outside wall it had a cross affixed to it. The boy and the girl did not know what to expect, but the boy realized that it may be their last hope for the evening. The two children thought to themselves that it would be so nice to not have to sleep outside anymore, but for just one night, be able to sleep under the shelter of a roof.

“And the two kids walked to the door of the small building with a cross affixed to the outside wall, the small boy holding the hand of his little sister, the two small children with rags for clothes who had barely eaten anything for days except for what the poor man gave them that morning. And the boy did not know if anyone would be inside or not, but he raised his hand, and knocked on the door of the church.”

Too often in the complicated and diverse branch of Christianity which we call Protestantism, a branch that we are a part of, we learn only half the picture. It is drilled into us (I’m speaking generally of Protestants now) that it is by faith alone which we are saved. That is certainly true; it is by a faith that responds to God’s abundant grace through which we enter into salvation, but that is just the beginning of the picture of this religion which we call Christianity. Salvation is entering into the kingdom of God; and now that we are part of the kingdom of God, salvation transforms into a vastly beautiful picture of love within the world. However it is a kingdom of love which we have entered into that demands action from its participants.

Sola fide; faith alone – the cause that Martin Luther championed almost exactly 500 years ago in response to the then corruption and abuses within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that is truly by God’s grace and love alone that God would invite us to be part of his kingdom. Our response to that grace and love is to have faith in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We become one of God’s own through the work of Christ on the cross; we become, on both an individual and community basis as the Church, representatives of God’s kingdom of love to a world that is filled with desperate, hurting, hungry, and searching people. The Church is designed to be the earthly kingdom of God, comprised of you and me, and should be a bright light of active, holy, missional love on a hill, and a light visible for all the world to see, giving hope to all who need it as the world struggles in darkness.

That is a much richer concept of the full picture; it is a picture that compels those who are a part of this kingdom of holy love to act and do. It is a picture where salvation is the beginning of true life, and not necessarily the ends which we so often treat it as. It is a picture that is not simply content with merely hearing the word, but is only content with demonstrating this word of love to all people and all creation.

James challenges us, his fellow Christian brothers and sisters, we who claim to be a part of this kingdom which is based upon a foundation of an absolute, holy love that can only be found in both the Son of God and the Son of Humanity: Jesus Christ. James challenges us to not merely be hearers of the word, but be doers of the word. In fact, James says some challenging words in verses 22 through 24 which cannot be taken lightly: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” One who is only a hearer of the word forgets what the kingdom of God is like almost immediately; one can conclude that for someone who is only a hearer of the word and not a doer, their actions and their lives may not demonstrate who they claim to be.

There is power in this word – in what we call scripture. It is a power that brings us to life and gives the words on scripture’s pages application for our everyday lives; but it is a power given to it by God’s Holy Spirit, active and breathing this scripture to life every single day, both in the past and the present, and from now into eternity. And moreover, there is power in the Word, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of love and the incarnation of the ultimate message of this scripture: holy love. And by that power of holy love found in God and in scripture, there is power for our own lives to be changed. It is a change that is wrought in us so that we are no longer simply hearers of the word, but we become active doers of the word, living participants in the beautiful, loving kingdom of God. It is a change where we can become free from the bondage and death of sin, and become alive to the holy love that is so abundant within God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

James says in verses 19 through 21, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” By the power of God’s Holy Spirit working within our lives, we can turn from evil and from sin; we can rid our lives of unrighteous anger. We can rid ourselves of the sordidness and rank growth of wickedness that is caused by sin. And we can be restored into the image of God – the image of holy love. By welcoming with meekness the implanted word, we can become “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” We can become doers of the word and not merely hearers of the word.

There is a hurting world out there; it is a world that is in pain and oftentimes filled with people who simply do not know where they can turn to. Some of us may encounter that world today, for others of us it may be later this week, but we will encounter it; in fact, the Church is called by God to go out and encounter it. Even today some of us may be a part of that hurting world, and some of us may be desperately seeking that hope and love which is found in the kingdom of God and which should be so abundant in the Church.

Those two little children, that boy and that girl who were hungry, tired, weary, wearing ragged clothing, and who did not have a place to sleep, they do not have to be found walking on a humid mountain path in Central America. Those children can be found in the beautiful cities of Europe, in the deserts of Africa, in the rural farms of Asia, in the islands of the Caribbean, in the mountains of South America, and in the outback of Australia. Those two little children can be found wandering the streets of our own North American cities, even as the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the history of our planet. Those two kids can be found in the rural towns of the midwest, suffering through poverty. Those two little children can be found in the homeless and hungry beggar who we encounter at the train station, and even in the man or woman that we pass by as we walk down the streets of West Chester, Pennsylvania. No matter where we go, there is hunger, there are people who barely have enough clothes, and there is poverty. Whether it is the widow or the orphan, there are people who are in need of a helping hand. There are people seeking both hope and love.

I ask of us – of this congregation, of our denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, and of the global, universal, catholic Church which we are a part of – do not let our religion be worthless as James warns us. I pray that each one of us may not only be hearers of the word, but doers of the word and active participants in God’s kingdom of love, who live by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to not only effect changes within ourselves, but who go out and do the loving work of Jesus Christ which still needs to be done in our broken and hurting world.

As we leave here today and encounter those two small children in the world, what will be our response? Will we merely be hearers of the word with no change in our lives, deceiving ourselves, and rendering our religion worthless? Or will we be doers of the word, caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping ourselves sustained not by the selfishness of the world, but by the loving kingdom of God, and inviting others into the presence of holy love? When we encounter the poor and hungry man or woman, and when we encounter the heart that is crying out in pain and simply asking for love, will we be doers of the word, helping those who are in need? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are being treated with injustice in the world, will we be doers of the word, standing up and demanding justice for those who cannot ask for it themselves? Or will we merely be hearers of the word? When we see those who are not being shown mercy, no matter who it is, will we be doers of the word, representatives of the kingdom of God, and ask for mercy on their behalf? Or will we merely be hearers of the word?

Will we be doers of the word and be a light for the kingdom of God? Or will we merely be hearers of the word, deceiving ourselves, and forgetting just exactly what the word is the moment we walk away?

When I think of our congregation at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene, I am encouraged. When I walk through our doors, I am confident that I will find a loving group of people. I see in this congregation a group of people who love God with everything that they are and who love each other with that same holy love. I see a group of people who are demonstrating this love to those two small children, those people who are in need. It is demonstrated with our goal to raise $1,000 for an Alabaster offering this month (a goal we can reach!), our continuing drive to bring goods in for the West Chester Food Cupboard, our food backpack drive last month for local school children, and our help with Safe Harbor in the recent months.

Let this passage be a reminder to us to not ever give up on being doers of the word; allow these words to remind us to not ever give up on being a people who act on the faith and the grace by which we enter salvation. Let us not forget the whole, beautiful picture that is the kingdom of God and the fulfilling gospel of Jesus Christ. Allow James’ words to be an encouragement to never be content with merely hearing the word. Let this passage remind us of the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives, ridding ourselves of any sordidness or rank growth of wickedness, and continuing to transform us in holiness and love for others.

“When those two hungry and tired children knocked upon the door of that small church building, seeking help in their hour of need after walking all day on a hot and humid forest path, the door opened. We, the people of the Church, answered, giving food and shelter and demonstrating the love of God to both the little boy and his sister.”

Do not ever be content in being merely a hearer of the word, but live welcoming with meekness the power of the word and the power of God to change our lives, continually caring for the orphans and the widows, and all others who are in need.