All that said, there’s one instance in Mark 11 when you’ve got to wonder whether Jesus had fruit-related issues. There he is, walking towards Jerusalem, when he gets hungry. Finding a nearby fig tree he finds that there isn’t any fruit, mainly because it’s only spring and it’s not the right time of year to harvest figs.
And then he does something that seems, on the surface of it, to be out of character. Saying, in earshot of the disciples, “May no-one ever eat fruit from you again”, he gives up on the tree and heads off to Jerusalem. The next day the group is passing the tree again but now it’s dead.
Of course, there’s more to this story. There has to be – Jesus isn’t the sort of person who kills trees in outbursts of petulance. And the key to it is what happens in the middle of Mark’s narrative, because that turns the incident with the fig tree into a physical metaphor. In the middle of this story is the cleansing of the Temple, the moment when Jesus launches into his most dramatic attack on corrupted religion.
Some context: the Temple was central to Jewish religious life, but at the time of the gospels, the wheels were falling off. The priesthood was corrupt, profiteering, nationalist and painfully nepotistic. Here, during the Passover festival, the place has become more of a market than a place of worship, specifically excluding the poor and non-Jews from getting close to God. The key function of the Temple is crippled and, because Jesus really doesn’t like religious leaders who put unnecessary barriers between the people and God, he starts overturning tables, driving out animals and accusing the authorities of turning the place into a den of robbers. Obviously this doesn’t make him popular, and is one of the dominoes that falls and leads towards the crucifixion, but what’s it got to do with dead fig trees?
Well, the answer lies in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly Jeremiah 8, which talks about the corruption of religion, how Israel turned away from God, and which includes the following:
“‘I will take away their harvest,
declares the LORD.
There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
will be taken from them.’”
There’s also a piece in Micah 7, where Micah prophetically surveys the land and is horrified by its corruption:
What misery is mine!
I am like one who gathers summer fruit
at the gleaning of the vineyard;
there is no cluster of grapes to eat,
none of the early figs that I crave.
The faithful have been swept from the land;
not one upright person remains.
So Jesus’s encounter with the fig tree is nothing to do with having a problem with a tree and more about his anger at the way in which the structures of his nation’s faith and politics have been corrupted, abused and turned into a means of oppression. The tree is a metaphor for the Temple, and in Mark 13 we get to see a fuller prophecy from Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (which also includes a reference to fig trees!).
And so the story of the fig tree is about the failure of people of faith to show the fruit of their beliefs, and about how false, corrupted religion will not stand. Looked at in that way, it becomes a difficult passage, especially for those of us who claim to follow Christ. How much fruit – and I guess we can use the Fruit of the Spirit here as a guideline – do we display? Is our religious practice just a case of going through the motions and grieving God? Are our temples on the verge of collapse, even though we don’t recognise it?
(This post was based on this week’s reading for The Big Read 2012 – ‘Signposts’.)