March 12, 2017
If you are like me, you may begin your morning looking at your schedule for the day. Maybe you like to make lists so you can cross off what you get done. It’s a satisfying feeling, to be sure. Some mornings I take a few minutes before getting out of bed to consider what I have to do that day. I don’t write things down, but I do think about where I have to go, what needs to get done, and what deadlines are coming up I need to prepare for. I want to make sure I am prepared to meet the day. Are some of you like that?
Now let me ask you another question. Have any of you ever made a virtual or actual list of ways you might care for others today, ways to use your gifts of character or ability to give glory to God? Have you thought to yourself how today you can let God use your gifts of understanding or compassion, or any of the fruits of the Spirit? No worries here, but let me explain why I ask that question.
Our scripture lesson for this morning is that of two tied together episodes: that of the unfruitful fig tree and Jesus cleansing the temple, and I don’t mean with a mop or broom. We have two examples of things not being as they should. Fig trees by definition should bear figs. Places of worship should contain people worshipping God. But something happened to upset their usual order. The fig tree had no fruit. The temple had people buying and selling. They were inside out, backwards, and counter to their intended purpose.
We are good at being efficient, or at least acting as though we are efficient. Our culture values organization, good management, following through with plans effectively, and getting things done. And that’s fine. But that’s not the sum total of why we are placed on this earth. God has another purpose for us, and that’s where the question of gifts comes in.
Some people have the gift of administration, being able to keep things orderly. Others of us try hard to pretend we have that gift, even if we really don’t. Paul once wrote a list of gifts that he felt exemplified the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. People who allow God to work through them will exhibit certain traits of character. We can call them by-products of living for God, traits that emerge through faith and a desire to serve the Lord. Paul called them fruits of the Spirit. Think fig tree with lots of figs.
If you know this list of the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians, say them along with me: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul wrote about these fruits of the Spirit because apparently some people were not getting along well with others. A few verses earlier he wrote, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” They had conflicts between those who were Jewish believers and those who came from a non-Jewish background. They had conflict between faith based on following Old Testament law, and faith that at its core is about forgiveness and grace given to us in the cross.
Our culture may place a high value on efficiency and management, but God places a high value on character. Don’t we get it upside down and backwards from the purpose God gave us when placing us upon this earth? God sees our worth by how we treat our neighbor. Hear these words from James, chapter 2: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?’ In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Hold this thought in your head now, as we consider the barren fig tree. What is Mark telling us through this episode? Mark wasn’t one for extraneous information, so undoubtedly this episode has a purpose. Mark’s overall aim in presenting this gospel was to show Jesus’ identity and purpose as God’s only son, the messiah. The problem wasn’t simply that Jesus was hungry, and in a flash of irritation, that Jesus decides to curse the poor fig tree for something it could not help, namely that it wasn’t the season for figs. That’s just ludicrous.
Jesus may have been referring to Jeremiah chapter 8, where God says, “I will take away their harvest. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree. Their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.” In Jeremiah, barrenness was Israel’s punishment for wrongdoing. In like manner, Jesus saw the tree was barren. He looked for fruit but found none. Jesus who has the identity and authority for seeking fruit condemns unfruitfulness. It’s not about the tree.
Without question, Jesus had in mind the barren fig tree as a symbol for the Jewish nation. Consider these words from Micah chapter 7 when God says, “What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. The godly have been swept from the land. Not one upright man remains.”
Jesus was declaring judgment on a nation that had become barren by not doing God’s will. It’s not the tree that was in trouble but the nation. The tree didn’t reject Jesus as messiah; the people did. The tree is simply the object lesson. One might call it an acted out parable, compared to Jesus’ usual style of speaking parables.
Mark’s goal at all times is to show Jesus’ identity and authority. He likes to use the literary device of one episode being sandwiched in the middle of another. A few weeks ago we looked at the healing of Jairus’ daughter. Mark included within that episode the account of the woman who was healed when she touched Jesus’ cloak. Mark made the point through these intertwined stories that Jesus is God’s son and has authority over illness and death.
This chapter, chapter 11, is all about Jesus’ identity and authority. We skipped over the opening verses as Jesus entered Jerusalem. Jesus came into the city riding on a young donkey. People in the streets cut branches and spread their cloaks on the ground in front of him. Others went ahead of Jesus, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father, David!” We hail Jesus the messiah, who is the promised descendent of David.
Next we come to Jesus’ words about the fig tree. Jesus says, see this barren fig tree? That shouldn’t happen if a tree is designed to provide food for people. It is not living up to its created nature. Jesus then enters the temple at Jerusalem and clears out those who were buying and selling, distracting people from the true purpose of worshipping God. This is within his authority as Messiah.
Remember those who shouted out Jesus’ identity just a few verses before? They said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus in the temple is the second time in this chapter that Mark gives us a clue about who Jesus is. Jesus passed by the fig tree again the next day. The disciples noticed how the fig tree was withered to its roots. Jesus used the example of the withered tree to teach them about faith, prayer and forgiveness.
In the midst of this chapter is the chief priests and teachers of the law. They rejected his authority after Jesus cleared the temple of the buyers and sellers. They challenged him again, asking him by whose authority he did what he did. Jesus asked them to say whether John the Baptist’s authority to baptize people came from God or not, but they could not answer. Therefore Jesus would not disclose his authority.
To be barren is to reject God’s authority, and Christ’ identity as God’s only son. To be fruitless is to misconstrue our purpose for living or put it in wrong places. Israel was like a barren fig tree when the nation turned away from God. The chief priests and teachers of the law were barren when they rejected Jesus, the very ones who should have been first to see Jesus for who he was, and the authority he deserved as messiah and God’s son. They spent their time setting up impossible burdens for the people, as if human-made laws was the path to God.
The opposite of being barren is to be fruitful. The opposite of being withered is having faith strong enough, as Jesus puts it, to throw a mountain into the sea, a faith that so puts God in charge that all we do is in accordance with God’s purposes. May Jesus not come upon us as he did the fig tree, only to find that we are not allowing our God-given gifts to be used for others. Let us not be accused of being barren or unfaithful or not living in ways that give God the glory in Christ.
So in closing let’s return to Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit. Pray that we may show evidence of having these fruits on our trees – that people should know us as loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. Put these qualities on your to-do list, along with whatever else you have to do for the day. Let your faith be evident to all.