Summary: This sermon examines why Jesus cursed the fig tree, and what that means for followers of Christ.
A while back, I visited an old family friend. This person had not seen me for a long time. Let me reenact our encounter (place and then slowly take off cap). The reason why my friend’s voice trailed off at the end is because my afro had taken an extended vacation.
Oh mind you, my scalp was still alive. If I cut it, it would bleed. If I exposed it to cold air, I would sneeze. And oddly enough, it could feel heat from florescent lights. Oh yes, my scalp was still alive, but my afro had engaged in an act of follicular infidelity. My scalp was alive but not productive. And it was this lack of productivity that caught my friend by surprise and placed a look of disappointment on her face.
I share this anecdote with you because that is what came to mind as I read this text in preparation for this message. If any of you has ever taught this text in a children or youth bible study, you know that this one is not easy. After all, Jesus is loving, good and kind, so why would he pronounce a death sentence on a tree? And to be honest, it took me many years to understand it.
This event is also recorded in Mark 11:12-14. Mark’s version describes the fig tree dying later but Matthew’s version suggests that the tree died immediately. Mark’s version also adds that it was not the season for figs; this textual variation adds to the complexity of its interpretation. But, for fig trees in that part of the world, leaves were the precursor, predicate, and predecessor for figs. So whether the leaves appeared on time or as Mark suggests – too early, Jesus rightly expected figs, found nothing but leaves and condemned the tree to death.
So let’s say that that this text still creates theological tension for you. After all, Jesus forgave a woman caught in adultery, a crooked tax collector and a disciple who denied him, so why couldn’t he forgive a tree? Perhaps three examples will clarify why Jesus took this action:
Example 1 – Growing up, I was in the Junior Oriole program. I received some free tickets to see great pitchers such as Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson. I was fed a steady diet of gold glove pitchers. However in recent years, I have not seen that same level of pitching. And you know what really ‘burns my biscuits’? It is when we have relievers who can’t get people out. The job title of ‘reliever’ means that you are being paid for your skills, knowledge, abilities and experience to get batters out. You only have one job – provide relief. But when a reliever can’t get the other team out, then it begs the question: Why are you on the payroll? If the starting pitcher and the reliever cannot end the inning, then my ticket money is paying two people for the same failure. When that happens, I believe that the reliever who cannot get batters out, needs to consider other career options.
Example 2 – Last year, I went to a local seafood restaurant to get some crab soup. When I entered, the server told me “Sir just so you know, if you want steamed crabs, then we cannot serve you because we ran out of crabs”. When I told the server that I only wanted crab soup (which was hopefully made from canned crab meat), then he escorted me to a table. As I waited for my soup, it occurred to me that this was a seafood restaurant in the Baltimore area, with a steamed crab as its logo on the outdoor sign and on the menu, yet it ran out of crabs. This inventory catastrophe begged the question: If your signage and menu show that you specialize in crabs, then how can you run out of crabs? You can run out of chicken. You can run out of pancakes. But when you have a seafood restaurant in “Crab Country” with a steamed crab as your brand, and you run out of crabs, then someone needs to consider other career options.
Example 3 – I work in Washington DC and typically take the commuter train to work. The commuter train has a reputation of breaking down (it runs most of the time, but it breaks down just enough to be stigmatized). What boggles our minds is that when your sole purpose is to shuttle people between Baltimore and DC, then how can you not keep the engines and cars maintained? Our perspective is that if we wanted to sit comfortably, read a book, occasionally look out of the window, but not go anywhere, then we could sit in our living rooms. These moments of commuter frustration beg the question: If you are in the transportation industry, but have enough problems for the riders to keep cell phones and extra rations handy, then shouldn’t you hire some more mechanics? Shouldn’t you revisit your operational model?