We encounter one of my favorite miracles in this morning’s gospel lesson (Mark 11:12-26)—the withering of the fig tree. It grabs my mind with its enigmatic quality, and it touches my heart with its passionate emotion. If it’s not the most difficult miracle to explain, it’s near the top of the list, and I remember well needing to rely heavily on Jeffrey John’s book The Meaning in the Miracles when I taught this miracle in a weekday bible study.
In this chapter of Mark’s gospel account, we have arrived (at last) in Jerusalem. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had entered the city for the first time riding on the back of a colt, and today he returns. On his way from Bethany into Jerusalem, a hungry Jesus sees a fig tree in leaf and, upon discovering that the tree had no ripe fruit, he cursed it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” As the story continues, Jesus and his disciples continue to the Temple, where Jesus’ anger spills over at the money changers, whom he chases out God’s “house of prayer for all the nations.” As the band of misfits leaves the city and passes back by the fig tree, Peter remarks, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.”
For me, the whole story—and by that I mean that the miracle of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple are inseparably linked—hinges on one impossible verse: “When [Jesus] came to [the fig tree], he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Well, what did he expect? Did Jesus think the fig tree would have fruit even though it wasn’t the right time of year for figs? Actually, yes—he did.
Some look at this miracle as an expression of Jesus’ petulance—a hungry and impatient messiah doesn’t get what he wants and so curses the poor fig tree, withering it to its roots. If that were the case, I would have hated growing up with the teenage Jesus, who must have withered several of his adolescent rivals to their roots when he didn’t get his way (cf. III.1 in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic gospel in which that really happened). In similar though, for whatever unjustified reason, less shocking fashion, some interpret the cleansing of the Temple as Jesus’ complete rejection of the Jewish religious apparatus of his day—a scathing and supersessionist messiah views the sacrificial system as irreparable and so turns the Temple on its head. As you can tell, neither of those approaches works for me.
As I read it, the fig tree and the Temple scene inform each other, allowing both to make sense (and if I remember correctly, I’m borrowing heavily from J. John here). Both stories, which have been sandwiched together by Mark for an instructive purpose, involve a failure to fulfill a divinely appointed purpose. The fig tree, though out of season, was created to bear fruit. The Temple system, though broken and waiting for spiritual renewal (cf. the Minor Prophets, particularly Malachi 3), was ordained to bear spiritual fruit. Even if neither has reached the appointed time for achieving its purpose, Jesus and the kingdom of God which he has come to establish cannot wait any longer.
Jesus’ message to his disciples and to us though the withering of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple is this: God will not wait for us to bear fruit—we must do so now. We cannot escape our divinely appointed purpose simply by claiming that we’re not ready yet. So often I pretend that I need more time and practice and spiritual growth before I’ll be able to be the sort of Christian God is asking me to be. Regularly, I tell God that I’ll happily do those difficult things (e.g., sell all that I have and give it to the poor) when the timing is right. But God isn’t willing to wait on me. He doesn’t allow me to decide when I’m going to bear fruit. The time is now whether I’m ready or not.