I don’t know about you but the reading this morning is a right mess. Jesus seems to be having a rant at a fig tree because it hadn’t any figs on it.
Jesus curses and destroys the fig tree because it had no figs. It wasn’t even the season for figs. That comes in late summer. It almost looks as if Jesus is peeved; hungry and hopeful that this green tree will provide nourishment, upon finding the tree empty of fruit, he curses it in a fit of pique. Was this Jesus still in a bad mood after yesterday’s visit to the temple?
Figs appear to be an exception, though in reality they are not. Fig trees produce flowers simultaneously with their leaves. But the flowers are encased in a fleshy, protective covering which have the same shape as ripe figs, giving the false appearance of fruit. The fruit doesn’t develop, however, until later. When pollination occurs inside these coverings (which requires the assistance of a special type of wasp), fruit develops. But the fruit, too, remains inside the fleshy covering. So the skin of a fig is actually the protective covering of the flower.
The tree that Jesus saw was unusual in two ways. First, it came into leaf early. The tree appeared to be flourishing, but in reality it was producing nothing of value, and never would.
So Jesus curses the tree. He curses the appearance of fruitfulness without the reality.
Is this a parable that following Jesus is more than just appearing to do so? We have to become like Jesus and become fruitful.
Mark now resorts to his often used tactic of a story sandwich. He and his disciples now reach Jerusalem and they go into the temple. Here we have the fireworks that I promised you last week. Jesus attacked the traders and their customers.
The temple had an outer court, the court of the Gentiles. No Gentiles were allowed to go any further into the temple. This area was intended to be an area of prayer for non-Jews. The religious leaders had allowed it to become a market area. Merchants sold animals for sacrifices; moneychangers converted foreign currency into the coinage required to pay the temple tax. No doubt this was also quite an earner for the temple authorities.
I’m sure Jesus didn’t act on the spur of the moment. He had surveyed the scene the previous day and decided what he would do on Monday. He threw out the merchants and turned over the tables of the moneychangers, scattering their nicely-piled coins all over the ground. You can picture the scene. Chaos. What do you think you’re doing?” “Where are the authorities when we need them? There’s a crazy man in here!”
It’s not at all surprising that the religious people were upset and once again looked for a way to get rid of Jesus.
Was this story another parable? If it wasn’t I’m going to treat it as one. Temple worship was intended to demonstrate the relationship between God and the people. Not just the Jews but all.
This Court had become a convenient place for doing business. A business that had been driven by the religious rituals that had been set up. A set of rituals necessary to appease God rather than expressions of an intimate relationship. They would approach the church with the attitude, “I have to do this, so that God won’t punish me. I’ll meet my needs here. Get this over with. I’ll be fixed until next time.” You see the focus? Church worship exists for me.” It did not focus on God. Church worship was never intended as a way to gain brownie points with God.
You may have noticed that I have changed the word temple into the word church. Today we are in danger of treating our religious rituals as a means of putting us right with God.
It centres on us rather than God.
Jesus told the woman at the well that those who would worship God must worship in Spirit and in Truth.
Cue the next day.
Back to the fig tree.
Remember the context: Jesus had just judged the fig tree for giving the appearance of fruitfulness but it had no figs. He told the temple people off for using the religious rituals in order to give the appearance of being faithful to God.
So when Peter exclaimed that the cursed tree is dead, Jesus summarised the lessons about fruitfulness: “Have faith in God.”
Jesus curses the fig tree as a severe rebuke to the religious people of His day. Is there a parallel for the religious people of our day? Are we in danger of emulating the fig tree: having the appearance of fruitfulness without real fruit?
Undoubtedly the answer is “Yes.” If we are to avoid becoming cursed fig trees, we must avoid at least four pitfalls:
Relying on ritual: So often we think that because we perform a certain ceremony once in our life, or regularly every week, we are right before God. These Jewish religious leaders were perfect in their observance of rituals that God had specifically ordained. But they had no fruit; they did not take on the character of God. God rejected them, despite their outward obedience to religious rituals.
Relying on numbers: Sometimes we’re tempted to think, “We’re fine! Our church is growing by leaps and bounds! God is blessing us!” But remember, in terms of growth, few churches can match the cults. Churches can grow simply by appealing to people’s natural desires by telling people what they want to hear, by avoiding the hard parts of the Bible. No. Numbers do not provide evidence of fruitfulness.
Emotional reaction. Some might say, “We’re so fruitful. Everyone is moved in our services.” But great emotion is no sign of fruitfulness. We can arouse strong emotions in many ways unrelated to God. Any rock concert will tell you this.
Before you all shoot me down in flames I am not saying that religious rituals do not have a part to play in our worship. I’m not saying that the ancient doctrines should be thrown out. I’m not saying that we should not work at bringing people into the church. But Jesus made it quite clear that the most important thing was to follow Him and to Love God and all his people. Worship should be focussed on God not on ourselves.
We should aim to be a church overflowing with fruit. Fruit that is available to everybody regardless of the season.