The story of the fig tree Jesus cursed has always been a story that I struggled to understand. How can one make sense of Jesus cursing a tree that isn’t in fruit when it was not the season for figs (Mk 11:13)? We know that the season of the year is the springtime and it is near the Passover celebration. That being said, there wouldn’t be a fig tree anywhere in Israel that would have fruit, though they would all be in leaf. At least that was my conclusion until I started researching figs.
Did you know, the fig tree has some peculiar fruiting habits? They can produce two crops per year. “The first or breva crop develops in the spring on last year’s shoot growth. In contrast, the main fig crop develops on the current year’s shoot growth and ripens in the late summer or fall.”2 That is interesting and it just so happens that breva figs coincide with Passover. Jesus’ hope of finding this early fruit on a fig tree in the spring, when he was hungry wasn’t outlandish, it was possible, though less likely than later in the summer.
Jesus knew that. He created the fig, along with all the rest of the world, so why does he go looking for fruit at a time of the year when it may or may not be present? I traded one puzzling question for another. As I was thinking on this new question, “What does it mean for Jesus to look for fruit on a tree in the spring time?”, I ran across these verses in my study, in Jeremiah God declares, “I will make [the remnants of Judah] like poor figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten” (Jer 29:17). Through Hosea, He says, “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert, when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree” (Hos 9:10). When I realized that God compares Israel to a fig tree1 the parable started to make sense to me, especially in light of the celebrated entry motif we discussed last week and the need for a sacrifice or act of cleansing in the temple. Why did the king need to cleanse the temple? Because there was no fruit.
Bible scholar William Lane writes, “[Jesus’] act was an example of prophetic realism similar to the symbolic actions of the OT prophets…[It] would stimulate curiosity and point beyond the incident to its deeper significance” (Lane, Mark p. 400). Let me explain those words.
Jesus is acting out a living parable when he goes looking for fruit. This is much like Isaiah did when he walked around stripped and barefoot for three years as a sign that the King of Assyria would lead away the Egyptians and Cushites stripped and barefoot (Isa 20:1-6). Or like Jeremiah did when he was told to buy a linen belt, wear it and then hide it in the rocks only to come back days later to find that it was ruined. God declared “In the same way I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem” (Jer 13:9). It is like Ezekiel drawing out the siege of Jerusalem and spending 390 days lying on his left side and 40 days lying on his right side to symbolize the judgment that Israel and Judah were to undergo for their failure to follow God (Ezek 4:1-15).
In this same vein, when Jesus goes looking for figs on the fig tree in the springtime, it is a living parable meant to compare the temple and the people of Israel to a leafy fig tree without fruit. They are covered in foliage, all green and having the appearance of health and vitality, but in reality there is nothing of nourishment on their branches. This reminds me of Adam and Eve after they sinned and then covered themselves in fig leaf. They have the leaf but all the fruit of the relationship has been lost. The chosen people of God are without fruit. But that is not how they were supposed to be. On the contrary, the people of God were always supposed to be fruitful; but they weren’t living into their calling to be righteous and just, true worshippers, and people of prayer. As the idiom goes, they were all show and no go. And a life of show without fruit has always been called a life of hypocrisy. And like the fig tree, the result of a life of leafy faith without fruit can only bring forth condemnation. As Jesus says, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” and as Peter declares, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mk 11:14, 21).
If you recall from last week, one of the things I mentioned about celebrated entries was that they culminated by entering into the temple in order to either worship and offer sacrifice or to cleanse the temple of the uncleanness that had entered it. As our story so clearly depicts, Jesus, the great victor, enters the temple in order to cleanse it of all the irreverent activity occurring within its borders. Jesus wants the Jews to recognize that their worship is actually fruitless because of the way they are going about it.
To the priests and worshippers of the day, the temple was beautiful, and wonderful. King Herod had spared no expense in rebuilding the temple structure. The foundation stones were huge blocks of rock. Josephus, a Jewish Historian around the time of Jesus tells us that the temple front was “covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white”3. Truly this is a structure that was magnificent and using our image from the fig tree, covered in leaf.
But it lacked fruit in three distinct ways. First there was the buying and selling that was occurring in the temple precincts. Men selling doves according to Mark, but in John’s gospel, we find men selling cattle and sheep (John 2:14), and according to rabbinic sources it was common to sell oil, salt and wine as well. All of these items would have been used as part of the sacrificial system.4 That is important because when people move into the temple in order to “provide” what others want or need, they have inadvertently traded the object of worship, God Almighty, for the worshipper. The worshipper and his needs become the focus, not God, and when this happens, there is no limit to the profiting that can and will be made in order to sell sacred things. When the worshipper is the focus then someone will always be left out, excluded, or denied participation. But these are just symptoms of the commercialism of the temple overshadowing the worship dimension.
Second there were the moneychangers who were at work. These men had the job of taking all the money that the worshippers brought from all over the world and converting it into “sacred” money. There was no such thing as a common currency in the days of Jesus; rather each city or city-state would mint their own coins. And some coins were known to be of a high quality – good alloys and consistent size and weight – while other coins were less acceptable. The moneychangers operated in order to ensure that everyone was giving the same “high quality” coins to the treasury and in the proper denominations.5 In this case, worship became more concerned with external purity and uniformity than with the heart of the worshipper. The offering was more important than the heart offering it.
Both of these were big problems and unfortunately, it had been going on for centuries and it still occurs in our world today. Worship was business instead of a matter of the heart. And this brought about Jesus’ righteous anger and his actions that day as he entered the temple in order to purify it. But that leads us to the third reason why the Jewish worship of Jesus’ day was all leaf but fruitless. Like so many people, the Jews had forgotten that the main purpose of worship was to humbly pray and not to offer sacrifice. The temple existed in order to provide a place for all people to come and encounter God in humble confession and prayerful submission. But by transforming the outer court where the non-Jew came to pray and worship into a market, the noise would have been so overwhelmingly loud that it would have been very hard for a gentile worshipper to have discerned their own thoughts much less being able to discern the voice of God.
The context of the quote, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” from Isaiah 56:1-8, was that the Lord wanted the nations to come to the temple and be incorporated into the worship of the Almighty. The Jews of the day had forgotten this important point and turned God’s house into a “den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). It was a place where worship of God was being stolen.
Jeremiah first used those words “a den of robbers” (Jer 7:11) to describe the theft, murder, adultery, perjury and false worship which was occurring in his day in the temple and the smug confidence these false worshippers had that they were safe because this was “God’s house”. Instead of this false worship, Jeremiah called the people back to fruitful lives that represented the love of God and the love of neighbor by asking them to do justice and to reform their ways or else suffer the judgment to come. Which is ultimately pictured in Christ as he called the nation a withered fig tree.
All of this begs the question of whether or not the spirit of commercialism has infiltrated the modern life of the church? Are we susceptible to a life of leafy worship without fruit or a worshipful life bearing the fruit of a heart attuned to God?
A quick perusal of a Christian bookstore reveals titles that would support the premise that church has become big business. Consider these titles for a moment: Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age by Mara Einstein © 2007; Incorporation by Will Willimon © 2012; Church Marketing by Richard Reising © 2006; The Attractional Church: Growth Through a Refreshing, Relational, and Relevant Church Experience by Billy Hornsby © 2011; The Business of Church by John Wimberly © 2011; or Mark Smith’s The Church Leader’s MBA: What Business School Instructors Wish Church Leaders Knew about Management © 2011. All of this is nothing new, it is a repackaging of the seeker sensitive church model where people take priority over God, and church is an institution to be managed and grown to supersized status.
Or how about this blog post on how to build a mega-church: “First think about yourself. To succeed you need to build a major corporation with a dedicated and loyal customer base. To do this you need to be professional, and powerful.” The writer then goes on to recognize certain other traits – you need good graphic design work, plan on recruiting leaders from other churches, etc. and he closes with “From the very first service you need to be thinking about revenue.”6 Though these titles and the blog post are the extremes of commercialism, there is a very real danger of ritualism and commercialism in the church today.
To answer that lets consider what happens when the church quits being a place of prayer and worship focused on God and the glorification of Jesus Christ and it starts focusing on people and their needs?
Well, the church trades the truth of the gospel and the fruit the gospel for sentimental sermons that make people feel good but never challenge their sin, the way one lives or the manner in which one engages in worship. The musical preferences of the people in the pew begin to take precedence over what it beneficial for their continued growth in the faith. Services begin being planned based on what makes people comfortable instead of what God requires of them. We see the proliferation of age segregated ministries, instead of coming together with worshippers of all ages to seek the glory of the King. Preachers are called upon to be professionals, perfectly manicured and able to use every form of media well and church foyers begin looking like coffee shops where espresso machines churn out the noise so that people can be comfortable in their seats. It isn’t that these things are necessarily bad, but what is driving them? Is it really a focus upon God and his glory or is it a focus upon people and how to “market” to them?
Most of us are probably thinking that we are pretty safe with this sermon. These applications haven’t addressed issues in our body directly but in the greater evangelical world. And so the question I would like you to ponder this week is this: Is your life producing the fruit of the gospel?
Are you having greater success overcoming your sin or are you simply learning to manage it? Are you seeing the fruit of holiness? Paul declares to us: (Rom. 6:13) Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. Because of Christ’s death on the cross and victory over sin, the fruitful Christian life grows in holiness and righteousness. The fruitful Christian life finds victory over sinful patterns of living instead of deeper enslavement. Are you seeing sin defeated in your life? (That is different than saying I don’t sin any more, which is not a Christian reality. But are you seeing victory? Are you finding less desire to sin and turning from it more when it seizes you?) The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, that we cannot obey the commandments perfectly, but “Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, we will begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (Q114).
Are you seeing the fruit of righteousness growing in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, etc.? Is their a growing love for the word, to pray alone and with others, to give to the furtherance of God’s work? Or do you find yourself talking about the Christian life and its wonderful love for people but actually having little or no love at all to be with God’s people, to bear with them, to forgive them? Do you find grace towards others in short supply? —–
Jesus in the final section of today’s reading talks about the need to forgive others.7 It is possible to pray with an unforgiving heart – leaf and no fruit. It is also possible to go through the entire action of having a Christian relationship with God, but not to have any of the fruit of the real thing, the very fruit that nourishes your soul and brings forth sweetness for others.
When we pray but harbor bitterness in our hearts, or anger or hatred or resentment, we are living the unfruitful life, much like the Jews were worshipping without the fruit of the act. Bishop Ryle said it this way, “No prayers can be heard which don’t come from a forgiving heart” (Ryle, Mark 11:22-26).
A person who can’t forgive, or refuses to forgive is merely living in the allusion that they are a worshipper of God. True worship will always bear the fruit of forgiveness to everyone who has wronged them. For true worship always brings a person face to face with the great sins that have been forgiven on the cross and true worship then leads to humility and grace.
All of this leads us to the gospel message, Jesus condemned the temple structure of the day as a fruitless place, but he promised that in himself he would rebuild the temple. He promised that in his body would be a fruitful, worshipping people who would bear Christ-like qualities because they are connected to the vine. Worship on human terms can never bear fruit that lasts, but worship that is united to Christ, will always bear big beautiful figs.
So let me ask this final question in closing: Are you a fruitless fig tree or a fruitful vine connected to the master and bringing forth the character of Christ? One is condemned and the other is rewarded.
1 (Jer 8:13, 29:17, Hos 9:10, Joel 1:7, 12, Mic 7:1-6)
3 Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 5, section 6.
http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/war-5.htm . Tacitus says of the temple that ‘it is distinguished by its wealth, no less than by its magnificence’ (Hist. v. 8).]
4 In English translations we read that they were buying and selling, but in the Greek translation, it says they were selling and buying.
5 There was the annual temple tax that was due, a ½ silver shekel for every Jewish male (Exo. 30:13) and any other monetary gift were to be of proper weight and metal as well. Also, many think that these changers tried to keep coins with images out of the temple in order to keep the first 3 commandments, but the rabbinic sources dictated that only Tyrian coins could be offered in the temple and these coins had both images and inscription which would be idolatrous to a Jew. However these coins were of the highest standard both in alloy and purity and consistency. (Leon Morris, Gospel of John, p. 170)
7 The leafy prayer life is one filled with lots of pretty words, and frequent exclamations of God’s grandeur and glory. It is a life of rhythm and consistent prayer but it lacks something. Jesus tells us of three things that can be lacking in the life of prayer. One may lack belief in his heart. A prayer life without a firm belief that God hears and answers prayer is a life of unfruitful prayer.
Additionally one may pray and believe that God hears and answers but fails to believe that God hears and answers them. They lack faith that God will do for them what they are asking, or maybe they lack faith that God can do what they are asking. Either of these are a failure to have fruit in the religious life. It is going through the motions without believing the outcome. It is like pretending to go hunting but forgetting to take real ammunition with you.
But there is a third thing that can cause us to fail to see answers to our prayers, i.e. we have unfruitful prayer lives. And that is unforgiveness.
(The Rabbis recorded instances where the profiting by the priests selling in the temple had gotten so bad that they were forced to issue decisions that were in violation of the law of God but which caused the scalping of the worshipper to cease for the decisions allowed people not to offer the prescribed sacrifices and so the price fixing ceased. For example, the doves needed to purify a woman after childbirth were begin sold for 25 silver dinars at one time, and one rabbi issued a decree that singlehandedly caused the price of doves to drop to ¼ of a dinar the same day.) – WBC Mark 11:15 Comment, also Mishnah Ker. 1:7