The Fig Tree parable is never read if the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, whether one uses the version in Mark or in Matthew (Luke left it out altogether). The “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” and the famous incident in which “Jesus cleanses the Temple” are the foundations for Christianity’s “Holy Week.” The accompanying scene in which Jesus curses a fig tree for not having figs out of season is ignored as not important. After all, Jesus is looking at a very bad week ahead, so perhaps he can be excused for taking it out on a stupid tree.
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan present an in-depth study of the sequence of the events of Holy Week in The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (Harper SanFrancisco, 2006). Their discussion of Monday in the Gospel of Mark suggests that the Palm Sunday procession and overturning the money-changing tables in the Temple were planned demonstrations of the contrast between Roman imperial power based on systemic injustice, and the power of the non-violent Covenant offered by God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.
The sequence in Mark is, 1) Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (on the opposite side of the City from the simultaneous parousia of the Roman governor); 2) Jesus curses the fig tree for not having any fruit (even though it was not the season for figs); 3) Jesus cleanses the Temple, calling it a “den of thieves and a safe haven for robbers”; and 4) Peter notices that the fig tree has completely dried up and died.
Borg and Crossan point out that the fig tree curse was a two-part framework that Mark used to highlight the meaning and importance of the demonstration in the Temple. There was a third party implicated in that protest. That third party was the religious establishment that ran the Temple in collaboration with the Roman authorities. Jesus’ problem with the Temple authorities was not the presence of money-changers, or the offering of blood sacrifices. He was not overthrowing traditional Judaism. He was demonstrating the consequences of collaborating with unjust systems, which results in breaking the covenant with God’s rule, which is distributive justice-compassion. Borg and Crossan point out that as far as God is concerned, worship without justice is anathema, and that is precisely what was going on when the Temple authorities collaborated with the Roman occupiers. (See especially, Amos 8 and Jeremiah 7 and 26.)
Throughout the Old Testament, God is continually insisting on radical, distributive justice. God even abandons his own chosen people whenever they begin to buy into the easy bargains that result in short-term, political or economic gain at the expense of that justice. God goes so far as to side with Israel’s enemies who do respond to God’s demand for a radical abandonment of self-interest, and who practice distributive justice-compassion without realizing they are following God’s law (see, e.g., 1 Kings 21 and 2 Kings 5).
Mark’s fig tree framework is a parable that highlights the fruitless, out-of-season, empty ritual that invokes the name of God without the sacrifice required to participate in God’s justice. When Peter notices that the fig tree is indeed withered up, Mark’s Jesus tells the disciples to trust God. “I keep telling you, trust that you will receive everything you pray and ask for, and that’s the way it will turn out.” But he’s not talking about getting kick-backs from the Romans so they can turn the Temple into a shrine to Jupiter. He’s not talking about winning the lottery, finding a parking place right in front of the bank, or getting a promotion. Jesus is talking about distributive justice-compassion. He is talking about changing one’s mind-set from greed to giving and sharing.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel missed the metaphor that framed Mark’s story about overturning the corruption in the Temple. In Matthew’s version, a hungry and frustrated Jesus curses a fig tree for not having fruit out of season, and “the fig tree withered instantly. And when the disciples saw this, they expressed amazement: ‘How could the fig tree wither up so quickly?’” Matthew’s Jesus says, “not only can you do this to a fig tree, but you can even say to this mountain, ‘Up with you and into the sea’ and that’s what will happen.”
The difference between Mark’s version of the story of Jesus’ last days and Matthew’s version may be analogous to the difference in Biblical literacy today between progressive Christian interpretations and right-wing fundamentalist literalizations. If Borg and Crossan are correct, Mark’s setting of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is a bold indictment of first century religious leaders who sold out to the injustices perpetrated by Rome in order to preserve their own political and religious positions of power. Matthew’s gospel was written 20 to 30 years later, in a far more dangerous time, after the destruction of the Temple. The fledgling Jesus movement was beginning to separate from Judaism. Destroying allegorical fig trees in an instant, and ordering institutional mountains into the sea on the strength of belief in the power of self-righteous prayer to God must have been a seductive thought.
Whenever times get difficult, the people demand greater security – whether it is financial, personal, or political. The rise of the Tea Party, with its insistence on literalism, certainty, and predictability, is not surprising in times of global economic crisis, climate change, and shifts in populations that confront people with aliens in their own land. The Bible that the Tea Party bases its political agenda upon is itself a record of political, social, and economic crisis, and how a people and their God dealt with war, famine, disease, exile, and occupation.
But underlying all the stories about treachery, revenge, hope, and despair is a demand for fairness, equity, and distributive justice. The Tea Party and its leaders and fund-raisers are not interested in fairness, equity, or distributive justice. They are interested in having “dominion” over all social institutions: government, business, private organizations, private lives. The test for inclusion in the right-wing, Christian fundamentalist movement is belief in the magic that shrivels uncooperative fig trees for being unable to produce fruit at the wrong time of year. This belief system does not care about the poor, does not care about situations that are beyond human control. If God won’t do it for you – whatever it is – then your faith is not genuine. Only people with genuine belief in Jesus will be rich, powerful, and ultimately able to move mountains – using bull dozers and underground fracking, poisoning wells and streams with chemicals and coal slurry.
Not all conservative, evangelical Christians subscribe to current fundamentalist theories regarding “Reconstruction” and “Dominion.” But the current list of Republican presidential candidates includes believers in both concepts, and others who pander to those who hold those ideologies without actually embracing them. Christian reconstructionists intend to transform social and governmental institutions – health care, education, even free markets – into institutions that are based exclusively on what they believe to be Old Testament religious law. These “laws” turn out to be cherry-picked out-of-context (historical and Biblical) from Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and carefully interpreted legends such as what happened to the Israelite people after the death of Solomon. Their assumption is that the entire history of the Planet, as depicted in the Bible, had one purpose: the death and literal, physical resurrection of Jesus in order to redeem humanity from its original, sex-based sin: Thus the refusal to accept LGBT people as human, and the escalating war on women’s bodies, birth control, and sex education.
This kind of theology is the opposite of the Biblical covenant with God’s distributive justice-compassion as spelled out in the foundational legends of King Saul, David, Elijah, and Solomon; the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah; the New Testament gospel writers, and the authentic letters of Paul. But this fact is denied by the leaders of a movement whose purpose is to win elections and seize wealth. Tea Party evangelists make sure the common folk are kept in ignorance. It’s easy to do: ordinary church-goers only want somebody to pay for the very injustice that the people suffer at the hands of the super-rich, who – like the conniving collaborators of First Century Jerusalem – launder the money that pays for the lies.
Borg and Crossan refer to Jeremiah 7 as the basis for Jesus’ charge that the house of prayer for the people had become a den of robbers:
If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. . . . Has the house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? (Jeremiah 7:5-11)
“The people’s everyday injustice makes them robbers, and they think the temple is their safe house, den, hideaway, or place of security,” Borg and Crossan say, “The temple is not the place where robbery occurs, but the place the robbers go for refuge” (The Last Week, p. 44). Right-wing literalists and their leaders collaborate with the money-lenders to assure that their theology will dominate and reconstruct society into a place where only the rich have access to power. Such a world produces no fruit, in or out of season. This is not what Jesus died to save.
Instead, as Paul writes in Galatians 5:22, “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The Scholars Version is perhaps less poetic, but much more clear in its meaning:
The evidence that God’s power is present among us is seen in our selfless love, joyous demeanor, and genuine peace, our long-suffering patience, warm-heartedness, and moral integrity, our trustworthiness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such virtues. Those who belong to God’s Anointed, Jesus, have crucified their former way of life along with its passions and desires. If God’s power has given us life, we should live in accordance with God’s power. Let’s not have any swelled heads, name-callers, or backstabbers among us (Gal. 5:22-26).
Further, Paul writes, “If you sow to sustain your earthly life, you will from that earthly life reap corruption, but if you sow for a God-empowered life you will from that power reap unending life. Don’t give up on doing the right thing; the day will come when we’ll reap our harvest, so don’t despair. In conclusion, as long as we have the opportunity, we should keep doing what’s right for the benefit of all, and especially for those with whom we share our confidence and trust in God” (Gal. 6:8-10, SV).
It is that confidence in the reliability of non-violent Covenant with a God of distributive justice-compassion that enabled Jesus to say, “Have trust in God. I swear to you, those who say to this mountain [of injustice] ‘Up with you and into the sea!’ and do not waver in their conviction, but trust that what they say will happen, that’s the way it will be” (Mark 11:22-33). He said it in the presence of a cursed fig tree, symbol of a religious establishment rendered fruitless by its own corruption.