On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
The passage is a ‘Markan sandwich’, the original cursing and the finding of the withered tree being separated by the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple (the reading for tomorrow). Mark does this quite a lot, setting one story amongst another. This makes for challenging reading; Mark is insisting we look at the two stories together and let them interpret each another. You might find it interesting to return to this passage after you’ve read about the cleansing tomorrow.
In a nutshell – Jesus is unfair to the fig tree which is, after all, part of God’s good creation. It’s Passover time, and it’s not the season for figs – Mark admits as much. Yet Jesus seems to be angry that there’s no fruit. Some interpreters feel uncomfortable with this, and try to ‘explain it away’ by suggesting it was originally a parable that’s been turned into a ‘real story’. But let’s take the text as it stands, because Mark is surely trying to tell us something!
The ‘sandwiching’ of the stories seems to suggest Jesus looks for fruit in the lives of those engaged in the religious life of the Temple – and becomes angry when he does not see that fruit. Is that us? Are we complacently making excuses for doing, or not doing, things in and around our churches and communities – ‘it’s not the right time to do this’, or some other, apparently good, reason for wriggling out of the challenge of being the fruit-bearers Jesus wants?
In the second part of the story, Mark shows Peter discovering the withered tree – which has happened because the tree did not bear fruit in the first place. And how much is that something that happens in our churches? We need to ask ourselves whether there is any wonder that some of our churches feel ‘withered’ if we are not bearing the fruit Jesus is looking for.
But there is a final stage too; Jesus links this to the faith we have, and so must we. Sometimes we can feel dispirited, tired, or burdened with responsibilities in our local church. I think this passage challenges us to reflect on what we should be doing to bear fruit and flourish in our communities – and to have faith.
Loving and Holy God: help us, as individuals and as local churches, to have the faith to stop … and to listen to what it is you really want of us … and not to plough our own furrows regardless. If we need to lay down the things that do not bear fruit … give us wisdom. If we need to respond to you in new ways … guide us. If we need to grasp the hardest nettle of all and let a church building go … grant us the love and the courage to do what is needful that the whole church might bear the fruit you are looking for. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Rosalind Selby is the Principal of Northern College in Manchester.