Journey to Wholeness – Lent 5

“Hangry Jesus and the Fig Tree,” Susan Ryder

Mark 11:12-20
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.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers.’ And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.

Parker Palmer –“But if I am to let my life speak things I want to hear, things I would gladly tell others, I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear and would never tell anyone else! My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.”

Dan Putt –“Happiness is just one part of our existence, wholeness is to embrace all that is within us. It’s to embrace our shadow qualities, to embrace our self-doubt, fear, anxiety, as well as the brightness, joy, and curiosity. It is all welcome.”

Billie Joel –“You may never understandhow the stranger is inspired.But he isn’t always evil and he isn’t always wrong.Though you drown in good intentions, you will never quench the fire.You’ll give in to your desirewhen the stranger comes along. (The Stranger)

So far during this season of Lent, we’ve considered several different aspects of our journey to wholeness, including the importance of preparation and spiritual grounding; finding friends to travel along with us; being true to our authentic selves; and living with humility. This morning we consider the importance of our humanity as we continue our journey, using the example of Jesus’ own humanity. The gospels are rich with stories about Jesus’ proving his divinity, because that was important to the early church fathers, the ones who got to choose which stories would become part of the canon of Scripture. But there are, once in a while, perhaps accidentally, occasions we witness some of Jesus’ humanity as well.

We know he wept over Jerusalem and mourned the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus also experienced joy and had a good sense of humor. He told some great jokes and witty one-liners in many of his sayings and parables. One example was when he told his followers during the Sermon on the Mount, “If someone sues you for your coat, give him the shirt off your back to go with it.” Where is the joke there, you ask?  Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar wrote in his book A Credible Jesus, “[Jesus’] saying about giving up one’s shirt to go with a coat claimed under the law would have been a howler in a two-garment society. The consequences dawn belatedly on the listener – which is what makes it funny.” Aha, they realize, when their incredulity wears off – that would leave him naked in front of the court! He also got angry, examples of which we see in the passage from Mark, where he expressed anger in two very different situations, one right after the other, toward the end of his ministry.

Last week at the end of passing the microphone after Bob’s reflection on humility and pride, I shared that being humble and keeping our pride in check can be a bit trickier for women than for men. Some of us were taught that nice girls, good Christian girls, do not express pride. We were taught that pride is a sin, one of the 7 Deadly Sins, in fact – but it seems to be more of a sin for girls than boys. We were told to be humble and not “show off” our accomplishments. As a result, some of us instinctively hide our achievements, or discount them, because to take pride in them is unbecoming. Proud women are considered arrogant – proud men are considered confident. We were similarly taught to repress our anger, another of the 7 Deadlies (wrath). Nice girls, good Christian girls, do not express anger. I remember as a child, maybe 11 or 12, getting upset about something during dinner, so much so that my father, who was normally very patient with me (because I was his favorite) told me to go to my room. So I did just that, slamming all 3 doors between the kitchen and my bedroom as I stormed off. Before I even had a chance to throw myself onto my bed, my father came to my room and calmly asked me to come back, apologize to my mother and sister for getting mad and slamming the doors, and then retrace my steps, closing each door quietly as I made my way back to my room. I remember it like it happened yesterday. Nice girls, Christians, we don’t get angry – or if we do, we certainly don’t show it. Years of therapy and a rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis later I still have trouble expressing anger – when I get mad I usually cry, because yelling or otherwise conveying anger are still a challenge for me. Angry women are shrill, bitchy, strident, or my favorite, hysterical. Angry men are strong, passionate, and become Supreme Court Justices. But I digress.

Back to the stories of Jesus getting angry – one is well known and appears in all four gospels. In John’s gospel it occurs near the beginning, after Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it appears near the end, right after Jesus’ arrives in Jerusalem for Passover. In fact, some scholars believe his temper tantrum in the temple is what led to his arrest and crucifixion; some even think he was probably arrested on the spot. Jesus’s anger in this story is considered to be the “right” kind of anger – what I mean by that is there are exceptions to that rule (of anger being sinful) if someone expresses righteous anger. In other words, it’s perfectly fine to express anger, even in a violent and destructive way – as long as it is righteous anger against evil-doers. People were using the temple as a place to control the means of ritual purity and thus, more importantly, control access to God. So Jesus flipped out and turned over the tables to condemn the fraud, exploitation and greediness – not of the money changers themselves, but of the religious authorities who making money on the backs of the faithful. It was like Catholic priests forcing peasants to pay for indulgences in the 16thCentury. So we are told that it was just fine, justifiable even, for Jesus to be so angry, and was not sinful.

But what about the story of Jesus’ cursing the fig tree? Interesting fact – the passage I read to you about the fig tree is never listed as a lectionary reading for any Sunday during the year. Meaning – in the 156 Sundays in the three-year repeating Lectionary cycle that many clergy use for their weekly sermons, this passage is never once suggested as a reading. Nor is the similar passage from Matthew. Turing tables over in the temple appears every year – the cursing of the fig tree, not once. There IS a parable about a fig tree from Luke’s gospel that appears in the cycle once every three year. Luke 13:6-9 reads, “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” But that is VERY different from the story that appears in Matthew and Mark – where Jesus curses the fig tree because it has no figs and it withers up and dies as a result. In Mark’s version, which is the earliest written text, it clearly says that it was NOT FIG SEASON. So of course there were no figs. It’s watered down a bit in Matthew, where there is no mention of it not being fig season. And Luke changes it to a parable without a curse from Jesus. John, the latest gospel, ignores it altogether.

So what does the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree mean? Why was it included in two gospels when it puts Jesus in such an unflattering light? Well, some say it’s a story about faithfulness – because in the verses right after the ones I read, Peter points out that the withered fig tree is the same one Jesus cursed the day before. And the passage ends with Jesus saying, “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.” What the heck does that mean? That if you have enough faith, you too can curse a fig tree and it will die? What a helpful thing to know, thanks Jesus. Others say it’s a warning about being fruitful – Jesus’ called us to bear spiritual fruit. This story lets us know what might happen to us if we don’t.

But what if it’s just a story about Jesus getting angry and lashing out? Is there anything more human than that? I am much more compelled and inspired by a story of a man who, like me, occasionally lost his temper, even over stupid things, but was generally a good decent person – than I am by someone who was perfectly calm and in control at all times and only expressed emotions in order to teach a spiritual lesson. It says very clearly that he was hungry. It also says it was not fig season yet. In the distance Jesus saw a fig tree that already had some leaves, which led him to believe perhaps the tree was bearing fruit earlier than usual. He got his hopes up – he could already taste the delicious fig on his tongue, causing his mouth to water a bit. When he reached the fig tree, how disappointing it must have been to discover it had no fruit. No, it wasn’t fig season – but he was hungry, and he was hopeful. But now he was HANGRY – hungry and angry. And so he lashed out – like we’ve all done in those moments we may not be proud of. He cursed the fruitless fig tree. What a very human moment for Jesus – one we can all relate to, one that helps us all understand what it means to be human.

Parker Palmer said, “My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.” Those are powerful words. Those aspects of our personality that make us uncomfortable because they seem unacceptable become more powerful when we pretend they don’t exist. When we stuff negative feelings down, they become backseat drivers influencing our decisions and relationships without our awareness – or they erupt in inappropriate ways. They quite literally can make us sick. As part of our quest, our journey toward wholeness, we need to not only affirm the things we like about ourselves, but also the things we don’t like. We need to acknowledge our unpleasant emotions along with the pleasant ones. We need to shine some light on our shadow selves, our darker sides – so that they do not continue to lurk in the background, sneaking out in ways and at times that are not beneficial. We need to embrace them in order to address them, for they too are part of who we are, and we neglect or reject them to or peril.