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For inspiration and learning, I read a page or two of devotional literature as I start my morning prayer time.  In early December, I usually read some prophet–Isaiah or Jeremiah.  Close to Christmas, I start a gospel–Matthew or Luke.  I like to finish a gospel book in the Spring.  I don’t belong to a liturgical church, but I’m coming to see some truth in linking the myths and stories with the seasons around us.  So this selection of readings is my personal liturgical calendar.  I’ve written about this before.

After reading the nativity story, I switched gospels this year.  Mark is spare, episodic and full of Jesus advocating for social change and a fair shake for peasants.  A couple of weeks ago, I paused in my reading of Mark to leave Jesus’s terminal week in Jerusalem until the week before Passover on my calendar.  Instead, I found Tom Head’s pamphlet, Envisioning a Moral Economy and the books of Ruth and Esther helpful for focusing.

Yesterday, I started reading these passages.  Jesus doesn’t speak much on the first couple of days.  His actions do provide a powerful message.  This time through, I’m noticing a different message each day.

I’m drawing a lot from a three year old post on the blog of my friend Paul C.  Read it!  It’s powerful.

On the first day of the week, Jesus steals a donkey and rides it into the city.  Local people praise and sing to him.  I forget who told me, but it was probably Joe, the same teacher Paul mentioned, that this scene struck a marked contrast to the Roman military might that had been displayed in a military parade just days earlier.  Getting off the donkey at the big temple, Jesus doesn’t say anything, but he does look around.  The kingdom Jesus shows and tells us about is clearly not maintained by state controlled force and big warhorses.

On the second day, Jesus comes to the temple and stops all the economic activity, much of which had been developed to gouge the many Passover visitors as they changed money and bought sacrificial doves.  He says, “Does not scripture say:  My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples?  But you have turned it into a bandits’ den.”  So this day’s message seems to be that the kingdom is not built from money extracted from peasants.

The first day was a parody of the Romans and an appeal to common folk.  The second day is aimed at the crooked commerce from which the temple establishment probably was taking its cut.  Rather than parody, Jesus used temporary disruption and resistance.

This morning, I read ahead to the next couple of days, but I haven’t distilled their messages yet.  Nor do I understand much about the fig tree that withers overnight after Jesus curses it for its barrenness.  Anybody got a clue?

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Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 3rd mo. 22, 2016 at 12:20pm

Hello Jay:

In Scriptures, it is often helpful to look at the context of an incident that is puzzling.

When Jesus curses the fig tree, his disciples are nearby and hear him: "And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it" (Mk. 11:14). They all are walking into Jerusalem where Jesus will enter into the conflict that will result in his death. The fig tree incident is Jesus teaching his disciples how to continue the work of bringing in the kingdom of God once Jesus has departed: (1) When they hear a command from their Master (who will be Christ Within), they are to obey it. (2) They are not to excuse themselves from obedience by some temporal, worldly consideration, like it not being a convenient time or season.  (3) If they do not bear fruit as the Inward Christ commands them, they will have their "one talent" removed from them.

When Peter sees the dried-up fig tree and points out to Jesus that which he'd cursed is now withered, Jesus replies, "Have faith in God" (21-22). He then gives a lesson about what their inward state needs to be. So, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the soon-to-be time when he will no longer be with them. After he has departed, the disciples will - on their own - need to prepare themselves to hear him inwardly (23-26), and, unlike the fig tree, they must obey the commands that he gives. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 22, 2016 at 12:56pm

The fig tree was a pretty traditional symbol for Israel and its (religious & secular) rulers...

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 3rd mo. 22, 2016 at 1:54pm

I do not think Jesus was referring to Israel and its rulers in this passage. Apparently neither did George Fox. In the following epistle addressed to Friends everywhere and excerpted from his Journal, he uses the exact metaphor that Jesus uses in the Mark 11 passage. Both men are speaking to those whom they expect to toe the line: Jesus to his disciples and Fox to Friends (emphasis mine).

And that no fruitless trees be among you; but all cut down, condemned by the light, and cast into the fire; that every one may bear and bring forth fruit to God, and grow fruitful in his knowledge and in his wisdom; and that none may appear in words, beyond what they are in the life that gave forth the words. Here none shall be as the untimely figs; none shall be of those trees whose fruit withers; such go in Cain’s way, from the light; and by it are condemned. Let none of you boast yourselves above your measure; if you do, out of God’s kingdom you are excluded: for in that boasting part gets up the pride and the strife which is contrary to the light that leads to the kingdom of God, gives an entrance there into, and an understanding to know the things that belong to the kingdom (The Works of George Fox, I. 192-3).

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 22, 2016 at 6:22pm

What does George Fox have to do with what Jesus meant?

Comment by Forrest Curo on 3rd mo. 23, 2016 at 1:26am

Fox was applying Jesus' words to the individually-focused theological concerns of 17th Century England; Jesus was enacting a prophetic sign directed to the theo-political circumstances of 1st Century Judea. He observes the tree on his way to the Temple, the visible center of the Judaism of his time, fails to find nourishment in it and curses it. Then he disputes with the various groups responsible for the Temple and what it is intended to accomplish, and after he leaves it the disciples observe that the tree has withered, whereupon he gives them a warning that the Temple and regime which has failed to respond to his message will be destroyed (as it subsequently, within a few generations, in fact will be.) The symbolism of a fig tree to represent his nation goes very far back in its prophetic tradition.

Comment by Jay Thatcher on 3rd mo. 23, 2016 at 9:51am

Patricia, Forrest

Thanks!  Both of those insights add to my understanding of the fig tree episode.  Just as Jesus is pointing out the spiritually withered state of the priest-centered Jewish faith of that time, perhaps he can be warning us of the fruitlessness of other churches, even later ones such as the 17th Century English Church or the 21st Century Religious Society of Friends. 

I read the spoken lesson Mark records with the fig tree sequences as a positive one about how to be fruitful.  It includes:

  • Have faith in God.
  • Everything you ask and pray for, believe that you have it already, and it will be yours.
  • When you stand in prayer, forgive.


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