As promised, I’m back at Mark. When I started going through this book, the goal was to finish it before the end of last summer. But round about August/September, we had this big hurricane thing, Irma? Maybe you heard of her? So life got a little crazy for a while. And then I just got out of the habit. And then I felt guilty for getting out of the habit so I avoided diving back in. (What? You don’t do that? That’s just me?)
And now it’s February. How is it February??? (Also: Happy vaLENTines day. Can I get my ashes in the shape of a heart this year?)
But I decided to get back at it in spite of those annoying voices in my head. And now that I sit down to look at it, I think this is actually going to work out pretty well. Because the part of Mark I’m at right now is leading up to the crucifixion, which is also where we’re headed on the church calendar. So, serendipity?
Look. I really wanted to focus on the Triumphant Entry for Mark 11. Because it’s a huge part of this story, and it’s pretty cool, and there are some genuinely funny parts. (‘Dude, where d’you think you’re going with my donkey?’ ‘Don’t worry, it’s a’ight, THE LORD NEEDS IT.’)
And I just think we get lots of stuff wrong about it. Overall, I think we sell Jesus short on how smart and calculating he was. We envision him as this naïve ingenue who was accidentally doing these things that just happened to be prophecies about the Messiah, like he was some kind of holy Steve Urkel.
Wait. That thing I just did? You’re telling me that was a prophecy? Well, dang! That must mean I’m some kinda Messiah!
But that is so wrong, on so many levels (the least of which is that Jesus didn’t wear highwaters).
See, Jesus had been baffling the Very Serious People since he was 12 years old. And that’s just the parts we know about! This was not just some dumb hick; Jesus knew what was up. People were always talking about how he spoke “with authority,” and not like those scribes and Pharisees. So when Jesus did something “as was foretold in the Scriptures,” he knew exactly what that Scripture was and what it meant for him to be doing it.
Jesus was not an accidental Messiah; this was all on purpose. When Jesus does things to set in motion his eventual execution, it’s not because he’s too dumb to know how dangerous it is. It’s because Jesus knows exactly how dangerous it is. It’s because Jesus knows he is Messiah, and Jesus knows Messiah has to die. And any bears that got poked along the way to Calvary? You can bet that Jesus meant to poke them.
So the whole riding into Jerusalem on donkey? Yeah, it’s not a coincidence that this whole little parade mocks a Roman triumph, which was meant to celebrate Rome conquering yet another outpost. This move would have put Jesus on Pilate’s radar. When it comes to insurrection, Rome does not have a sense of humor.
And it’s also not a coincidence that the vehicle for this mockery is a prophecy from Zechariah about the Real King™ being “righteous, victorious, and lowly.” Jesus is multi-tasking, taunting the authority of Rome while at the same time telling his followers (not to mention the folks who just want him to kick the Romans out) that “No, I’m not that kind of King.”
Or take when he turned over the tables at the Temple, which is also in Chapter 11. That’s not just an “Oh dang, Jesus really lost his cool there!” Because here’s the thing: Jesus rides in, he goes to the Temple, he checks out the scene, sees what’s going down, gets good and ticked off at the shenanigans … and then he leaves. Why?
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Because it was already late. Now, that could mean a lot of different things. It had been a long day, after all. I’m sure they were all tired. They probably had someplace to be. Dinner party or something.
So maybe all those were good reasons to put your anger in your pocket and leave. But do you know what else happens when it gets late? Everybody else goes home too. And what’s the point of turning tables when no one is sitting at them?
Jesus doesn’t throw temper tantrums as a rule. It’s not how he rolls. So we can talk about his “righteous indignation” all we want, but I don’t see this as Jesus having some kind of holy meltdown when he throws out the money changers. #OperationTableTurn was planned out.
This was a protest. And Jesus had probably spent (at least) the entire night planning about how to pull it off. Because he wasn’t impulsive; he was a planner.
Which is why the fig tree story bugs me to no end, and it always has.
Seriously, what is the deal with the fig tree?
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he 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.
That was after the Triumphant Entry, as they’re on their way back to Jerusalem to execute #OperationTableTurn. Then, the next morning, after #OperationTableTurn is over and the powerful people are upset and looking for him, this happens:
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.
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
So. Jesus curses a fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit when it isn’t even fig season. And that tree dies.
That seems harsh!
Now, there’s clearly some book-ending going on here by Mark, our storyteller. Remember, this is mixed in with a story where Jesus calls the Temple “my house.” Also, Mark 11 ends with Jesus being questioned about where his authority comes from, and Jesus gives a classic Jesus answer-by-not-answering answer. Viewed this way, the whole chapter is answering a question about Jesus’s authority without actually saying it out loud.
It has an ’80s action hero vibe going on, if you look for it:
“You wanna know where my authority comes from? What, did you not see me ride in here like the Scriptures foretold. Were you not at the Temple when I kicked your buddies out of my house? No? Oh, well then how about this? How about you ask that fig tree where my authority comes from!”
And all that is fiiiiiiiine.
Except I still don’t like this part story.
I don’t like the impulsiveness of it, and it feels like it tells the wrong lesson. Cursing a tree for not bearing fruit during the time of year when it isn’t even supposed to be bearing fruit? That’s really weird! And it doesn’t seem to line up with the Jesus I know.
So I don’t like the fig tree story, no matter how much “context” I put it in.
But do you know what? I think that’s okay. Because…
Wait. Are you sitting down, Mom?
I have come to the point in my life where I don’t have to agree with everything Jesus does, and I don’t have to justify everything Jesus does that I don’t agree with.
“WWJD” was a kind of big in the 90s. Maybe you heard about it? It was sort of a thing.
The idea of comparing everything you do to “what Jesus would do” if he were in your shoes, for me at least, was helpful for a time. It put skin on an abstract concept. But after a while, it wore kind of thin. And there’s a reason why.
Well, there’s a couple reasons why.
First, it ignores historical context. This is one that scholars love to point to, at least in one direction anyway. Jesus lived in a historical and cultural context of which we will always have limited understanding. Yes, yes, professors. Thanks. Again.
Jesus isn’t the only with a context; WE live in a historical and cultural context that would be foreign to Jesus. So asking a first century Jewish prophet living in a part theocracy/part Roman colony — asking what that guy what he would do in a post-fact but still democratically elected if increasing polarized America…well, that has its limits as far as usefulness.
So there’s that. But also also! Here’s the kicker:
It assumes there is one “right” way to deal with life. And as someone who has lived this mess for almost fifty years now, I can assure that, well, this is most certainly not the case.
Life is complicated. Not just now, but it always has been. It was for first century Messiahs, and it is for 21st century dads and husbands and secretaries and bass guitarists and novelists and bloggers. Sure, some stuff is always bad (don’t murder! don’t commit adultery!) but that list is actually kind of short.
Most of the time, things aren’t so clear. So we do our best to aim for “better” and steer clear from “worse. ” We look for generous and loving and compassionate and wise, and steer away from dumb and hateful and stingy, and we trust that this Spirit we have been promised is actually directing us.
Example: Should I give money to this homeless guy?
Maybe! Or maybe you could buy him a meal instead? Or…hey, if you kept a food kit at the ready, then you’d always have something to give him! But wait, this guy is always here. Does he know there is a program nearby to help chronically homeless people? I could give him a ride there. Or I could give money to them to address the ahem systemic problems. Or I could do multiple ones of those. Or or or…
It’s complicated! But I can promise you this: whatever you do, if you are choosing love and compassion, you are choosing well.
I’m just not always sure what that looks like. And if you’re completely honest, neither are you.
But wait! It gets better!
Because sometimes … well, honestly sometimes it’s not a matter of right or wrong or better or worse. Sometimes these goofy choices life gives us aren’t any of those things.
Sometimes life hands us choices that are just different.
Example: Should I quit my job to take this other job?
I dunno. Do you like your current job? Does the new job interest you? Why? There are pluses and minuses to both. Maybe you should make a list of them and just…pick?
Maybe it will turn out well and maybe it won’t, but either way, if you considered it well, try not to beat yourself up about it. And if you didn’t consider it well…well, maybe think about that next time you have a big decision and take a little more time.
Example 2: Should I curse a fig tree to demonstrate a lesson to my disciples?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t, but —
Because here’s the thing: I’m allowed to make choices you don’t like. And you’re allowed to make choices I don’t like.
Heck, I’m allowed to make decision that, in retrospect, I don’t like. I can choose to make them differently next time. That’s just life. It’s part of what being human is all about.
So it’s time to cut each other some slack. Because, you and me? We’re human.
Oh, and so was Jesus.
Wait, you knew that, right? “But Jesus was God!” Sure. But he was also human. And not half-human. He was all in. That’s what this whole Incarnation thing mean. The Word became flesh…and got hungry. And stubbed his toe. And had friends who really pushed his buttons.
So maybe sometimes, this wholly human Messiah handled the difficulties of life in ways that I wouldn’t.
Maybe this first century man went about Messiah-ing in some ways that don’t ring true to 21st century me.
So what’s the deal with that fig tree? I dunno. It’s pretty weird, I’ll give you that.
And that’s okay.