November 3, 2022
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“Seeing a fig tree along the road, Jesus went up to it and found nothing but leaves and no fruit. He said to the tree, ‘May you never bear fruit again!’ Immediately the tree withered and died.” When the disciples saw this, they remarked, ‘How did this tree die so quickly?’ Jesus replied, ‘I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only could you cause a fig tree to wither up and die but you can command this mountain to be thrown into the sea and it would obey. If you believe, whatever you ask for in prayer will be yours.” (Matthew 21.18-22)
When Mark relates this lesson concerning the unblessed fig tree, he states that “the disciples heard Jesus say it.” Here in Matthew, with a very different viewpoint of the event, we read “the disciples saw it.” In both renderings, the focus is on the power of Jesus to dispense judgment based on discernment. The cursing of the fig tree is not arbitrary nor is it vengeful. It is a matter of fact for Jesus that life in this world is intended for a purpose which must be served. We could see in both that there is a “power” in the word. As we find the cleansing of the temple in the middle of the whole life-curse-death story of the fruitless fig tree as recorded by Mark, it comes the following day after the cleansing of the temple as recorded in Matthew. The conclusion of Matthew’s retelling of that event binds one scene to the other. The tie that binds them both is the value of prayer. In Matthew, Jesus declares that the temple is intended to be a House of Prayer. Jesus isn’t even specific in limiting who can pray because there are courts for everyone in the temple: men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free. The establishment of the Temple was set up in such a way as to image the intent God had for the nation of Israel to be a revelation to the world. Transformation out of sin and into righteousness happens by the power of prayer and the faith to believe that prayer is powerful. The steadfastness of the faithful Jew, not limited to the priest or rabbi or elder, to a “prayer of belief” which honors God and establishes the appropriate relationship between themself and God bears a strong witness to the world. But, if prayer is abandoned and faith in God is made a secondary concern, then the power to transform life into authentic living is greatly diminished. It would seem that the onus was on the leadership of Israel and the judgment was declared by Jesus in the temple with a stern warning. What Jesus saw was a venue of taking instead of a venue of giving. Thus the House of God was a den of thieves and robbers who used “forgiveness” as the bait and switch. If there was to be any accountability for the then current condition of Israel as an occupied nation and a struggling people, it would fall on the leadership who misrepresented themselves before God and man. The “fall of that house” would be great.
And as “one door closes so another one will open.” In Matthew’s retelling of the events of what we call “Holy Week,” Jesus and the disciples were returning to the Temple the following day when the fig tree was encountered. As I proposed the disciples, as Mark drew the picture for us to see, were looking over their shoulders in what some might see as a retreat or an escape from the “scene of the crime.” They were waiting for something to happen in response to what Jesus did in the “cleansing of the Temple.” I am not sure it could actually be called a “cleansing” except in the terms of the parable of the man who cleaned his house and drove the evil spirit in it out into the wilderness. Remember the conclusion of that story was that the man did not repurpose the house or restore it to its “first love.” Instead, he left it empty and void, open and ready for someone or something to fill it back up. The first spirit returned with new friends of his liking and the fate of the house was worse than at first. I have no doubt that by the next morning the tax collectors, moneychangers, sacrificial animal vendors and the Temple leadership were all back in their assigned places for “business as usual.” Even though the word had been given, it was not heeded. The reminder was offered as to repentance and forgiveness leading to reconciliation and restoration but it was ignored. I can only imagine what the press of that day was saying. It probably sounded a little like the “January 6” news coverage which still carries on today ten months later. The echoes are still heard but no attention is truly paid as to what the message was all about. But, for Matthew’s telling, the disciples are not looking back but looking forward. They may well have been asking themselves questions such as “What will we find?” or “What will people say?” or “What will the leaders do to us?” And we dare not think that Jesus wasn’t listening to all of this. He had this ability to see and hear what was in the heart, mind and soul of people. Jesus knew!
And suddenly there it was- the tree. It was the same tree that had been by the side of the road taken by everyone coming to Jerusalem from Bethany. Everyone had seen the tree. In another year, figs may have been plucked from it and eaten as a snack on the two mile walk to Jerusalem. It may not have borne fruit for some time so no one really paid much attention to it. It was there but it wasn’t there. The tree had nothing of value to offer so it was ignored. It just existed. And maybe it existed for this particular moment. As Jesus lead the disciples back to Jerusalem for round two there were no praises, no palms, no donkey on which to ride. There may well have been others on the road to Jerusalem as well because it was Passover after all. Not everyone gets to Jerusalem, especially visitors and pilgrims from all the nations of the world. For them all, this was another day. But, not for Jesus. When He saw the tree this time it was in full leaf but empty of flower and fruit. He stated simply, “May you never bear fruit again!” It was a matter of fact. It was the Master gardener and arborist making a decision about the future of this tree. It could have been on the edge of a fig grove. The time had come for the tree to be replaced. The tree had served it fruit-bearing purpose and now its season of life had come to an end. The tree, like the evil spirits which sought to destroy the people of God from the inside out, responded immediately. The tree accepted that word of the Master and withered and died. The disciples apparently didn’t hear what Jesus said. The tree may have just been off the road (in Mark it was said the tree was at a distance) and the disciples may have stayed on the road waiting for Jesus. There is safety in numbers. But, they “saw” the tree once strong and green wither and die before their very eyes. And in their query, the message of transition of power and fruitfulness was spoken by Jesus. He told them that if they believed in the power of prayer and prayed powerfully in faith not only would they wither trees but move mountains. It is no accident that they stood on a hill opposite Mount Zion where Jerusalem was. A “mountain” was a signal and symbol of power, authority and the seat of leadership and governance. Could it have been that Jesus was teaching His disciples even then and there that they, too, could move mountains and not live in fear as they spoke the truth of God’s mercy, righteousness and desire for all humankind?
It bears consideration and certainly it bears applying to the events which are happening today as we approach a season of fruit harvesting and future investing as it relates to leadership in this country and in this world. Let those with ears to hear, hear (see Mark?) and those with eyes to see, see (see Matthew?). Until tomorrow, shalom.
Let the word of instruction not be missed by those who claim to have faith and believe in the Way, the Truth and the Life which is Jesus Christ whose gospel is peace and hope. AMEN.