Teaching from the Trees: Seeking Shrewdness

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly and almost immediately goes into the temple to overturn the tables calling for justice and transparency in the religious leaders who are profited off of people seeking forgiveness and reconciliation to the God. Jesus exposes their money-changing practices as self-serving rather than God-fearing. In the gospel of Mark, this is the act, the act of exposing their true motives, that begins the plot to kill Jesus.

But before that transpires, there is a small vignette between Jesus and a fig tree. After Jesus has entered Jerusalem and before he goes to confront the money changers, he is hungry. He looks to the fig tree for sustenance and finds none. So he curses the fig tree. It’s a strange interaction because figs aren’t even in season yet, so why would Jesus curse a part of nature that hasn’t produced fruit yet? Poor fig tree!

The fig tree returns after Jesus cleanses the temple and it has withered and died because of Jesus’ curse. “Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” Jesus follows Peter’s observation with an admonishment that words have power and indeed he has the power to move mountains if he believes it can be so. Some scholars argue that this is the point of the cursing of the fig tree…to demonstrate Jesus’ power and for the disciples to bear witness to what was really possible.

I tend towards the scholars who argue that Jesus knew that even though the fig tree looked like it was full of life, Jesus could tell that it would never bear fruit even when it wasn’t the season for it to bear fruit, just like Jesus could tell that the money changers had no interest in the well being and spiritual growth of the pilgrims coming to the temple.

Jesus, in his shrewdness, called their bluff. He knew the fig tree looked healthy, but wasn’t. He knew the religious leaders were capitalizing on religious practices for their own profit and Jesus overturned and cursed both pretenses.

This is a tough teaching, but it’s one of the first teachings Jesus gave when he came into Jerusalem. Revealing the money changers true motives was so alarming that they began the plot to kill him.

Maybe, the trees are teaching us to look more closely and shrewdly, at what appears to be growth. Maybe the trees are teaching us that some things will never bear fruit that provides true sustenance for soul hunger. Maybe, and this is something that is always difficult for me to realize, there are some people who are around us, even in churches, who are only looking out for themselves.