More to the Story
Jesus, is there more to this story?
This is the question I have been asking myself since reading a very familiar story in the gospel of Mark earlier this week. Maybe you know it; it’s one that has always bothered me a little. It’s the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:12-14; 19-25
So, it’s just kind of a normal day for Jesus. He’s hungry, goes looking for food, and curses the tree that doesn’t have fruit, even though it is not the right season for that particular fruit! The next day, the dead, cursed tree becomes an object lesson for praying in faith.
What I can’t wrap my mind around is the “why” part. Why did you have to kill the tree, Jesus? It wasn’t doing anything wrong. It wasn’t supposed to have any figs on it…so were you really surprised it couldn’t provide you breakfast? And if you can turn water into wine, give sight to the blind, cure leprosy with a word AND bring dead people back to life, couldn’t you have just commanded the tree to make fruit?
To me, it just seems like such a harsh punishment for an innocent little tree.
Jesus, help me. What am I not seeing or understanding in this story?
As I reread the passage again and considered the context, I asked a different question, “Lord, what does this passage reveal about YOU?” That’s when I began to see a little more.
1. Have faith in God
The MAIN point of this story is not that Jesus missed a meal, was disappointed, and “punished” a tree. The main point is that Jesus SPOKE and the tree withered.
Jesus' words have authority over all of his creation! And the biggest mind-blowing truth in this passage is that he has given that same authority to us! We can tell mountains to move! That is his promise to us and yet I know my faith is way too weak to trust that I can affect any sort of earth movement with just a spoken word. I don’t know what mountain-moving faith looks like or feels like. But am I curious enough to begin to ask for it? Am I bold enough to pray earth-shaking prayers, like the early church did in Acts 4:31 and 16:25-26?
2. Choose careful words
The second thing that stood out to me is that the tree withered in response to Jesus’ words. What I hadn’t seen before was Peter is the one who called what Jesus said to the tree a curse; Jesus simply said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
I know it is speculation on my part. Yes, Jesus’s words can be interpreted as a curse, but what I was inserting into this account was a tone of voice. Because Peter assigned the word “curse” to Jesus’ words, I assumed they were spoken harshly, in punishment or at the very least, deep disappointment. You know that tone of voice. I heard it as a kid whenever I would make a mistake. “Christine, you are so smart, but you have NO common sense!” I can still hear the frustration, the exasperation that came with those words out of my mom’s mouth. I mean, she wasn’t wrong when she said it, but those words had the effect of covering me in shame. I withered a little more whenever she spoke to me in that tone.
Back to the fig tree: did Jesus use that awful tone with it? Did he curse it and cause it to die, or was he simply pointing out a truth about the tree that was already there? Was he speaking about the tree no longer fulfilling its God-given purpose?
What I do know about Jesus is that he used his words very carefully! People were constantly amazed at his teaching. His words calmed seas AND stirred up the religious leaders. His few simple words caused an adulteress to be shown mercy. His words called Lazarus out of his tomb. And his silence in his unfair trials and before his torturers fulfilled prophecies that were spoken about him thousands of years earlier. Jesus modeled what it means to live as one who knows that we will give an account for every word spoken. (See Matthew 12:36.)
So, if Jesus spoke words to a tree and it withered in response, I must trust that Jesus knew what he was doing.
3. Unforgiveness is deadly
Finally, as I looked again at that last statement in verse 25: And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. This verse honestly seemed unrelated to the rest of the story. But again, knowing that Jesus taught in parables and used things that could easily be seen, I wondered if the withered
fig tree also represented the danger of unforgiveness? Is this deadness “from the roots” what unforgiveness produces in us, in me? Jesus loved a good object lesson!
I’ve realized as I wrestled with this familiar story, that I should have started with questioning my interpretation, rather than questioning Jesus’ words and actions. Looking at the words more closely, considering the context and asking Jesus to open my eyes to understand it better all led to me seeing this familiar passage in a new light.
If I want to grow in my faith, to be more in awe of Jesus and in love with him every day, I must learn to always ask, “Jesus, can you show me more of your story?”