Friday, April 02, 2010

The Tree and the Temple

Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:21)

On Sunday he wept.

That seems like a strange response to celebration and acclamation. You won’t see that at a Macy’s parade, the person perched atop the float shedding tears. It’s out of place. Nevertheless, at some point on his journey toward Jerusalem, from his seat on the colt, Jesus wept over the city.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus wept because this city and its inhabitants did not know what would bring them peace. Not much has changed in Jerusalem. For that matter, there are plenty of people in Atlanta and Seattle and Des Moines who share the same ignorance. We want peace, but don’t know how to get it. Maybe we refuse what we know. Peace – the kind that “passes understanding” – is found in Jesus. As Jesus approached Jerusalem he knew that this truth was hidden from their eyes (Luke 19:41-42). They would not look to him for peace. In an effort to restore peace and keep the peace, they would kill him. So Jesus wept for Jerusalem.

But the weeping didn’t last long. On the day after that triumphal entry, according to Mark’s rendering of events, Jesus cursed.

Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the Temple when Jesus spotted a fig tree and went to see if had fruit, possibly hoping for a snack since he was hungry. There was no fruit to be found. It was a bit early in the season for figs and the tree had only leaves on its branches. This provoked the curse – not profanity or foul language, but a pronouncement of permanent barrenness. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:14).

Jesus then made his way from the tree to the temple. At the temple he again lets his indignation loose on the money changers and vendors who have distorted what temple worship was all about. He drove them out, turned their tables over, scattered their profits all over the temple floor.

Sunday’s weeping is replaced with Monday’s cursing, the tears prelude to a tirade.


I’ve never liked the fig story. While pastors are hesitant to admit this, I’ve never really understood it. The story doesn’t reflect well on our Lord. His “cursing” of tree that has no fruit sounds a bit like a tantrum. Jesus didn’t get his snack and he’s irritable. I don’t put up with this kind of thing from my own children and I sure don’t want to see it in Jesus.

But the tree makes a little more sense when placed in the context of the temple story. Both the tree and the temple are barren and that’s what Jesus sees. He isn’t being petty or throwing a fit in the temple, and he isn’t having a tantrum at the tree. The temple worship that had deteriorated into a commercial enterprise is barren, failing to bear the fruit of true worship. The tree that bears no fruit anticipates what Jesus will find at the temple. The tree is the temple and the temple is the tree.

But in the larger context of Holy Week Jesus’ weeping and cursing, the tears and the righteous indignation say something about how God sees us and the fruitless, barren places in our own lives. On one level, sin is our failure to be all that God made us to be. Sin renders our lives barren and fruitless, a shallow existence that goes through the motions of living but never truly lives.

Jesus sees this and weeps. Jesus sees this and goes to work cleaning house, restoring a heart that truly loves God and bears fruit in the world. What Jesus said to the tree was a word of judgment. What Jesus did in the temple was likewise an act of judgment. And what Jesus did on the cross was judgment as well – but not condemnation.

“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). How is the fruitfulness of your life today? Are you going through motions or growing in grace?

Fill me with your Spirit today, O God, that my life might bear fruit in this world. Apart from your help I will not be the person you have made me to be. My own efforts at fruitfulness are bound to fail without your grace. Thank you for the cross and the judgment Jesus bore for my empty, barren ways. Bring me into resurrection life, I pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.