Approaching a troubling story as metaphor opens it up.
One of the more troubling stories told about Jesus in the gospels is an incident (Mark 11:11-20) that the Gospel of Mark recounts after Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. After riding into the city on a donkey, Jesus looks around at everything, then leaves again for Bethany.
The next morning Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus is hungry. He comes to a fig tree by the road and finds it has no figs. Mark says it is not the season for fig trees to bear. Jesus curses the fig tree. On the second morning when Jesus and the disciples pass by, the disciples note that the fig tree has withered overnight.
It is a troubling story because it seems to picture a peevish Jesus. Frustrated that the tree has no fruit, Jesus curses it. But, of course, it had no fruit. It was not the proper season for fruit. The fact that the tree had no fruit is not its fault. Come on, Jesus, let’s be a bit more understanding.
Why does Mark tell this seemingly unflattering story of Jesus? I’ve thought about this a lot. And in searching for an answer, I turn to a tool I use all the time in interpreting Scripture: Read within context. When we do, we find Mark doing a very subtle thing.
Mark presents Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as a royal entrance. Israel’s true king is coming into his capital. And when Mark says Jesus looks around the city, I don’t think he thinks of this as Jesus as a tourist site-seeing. No, this looking around is Jesus doing a royal inspection. He is assessing the state of his capital.
Also, after the cursing of the fig tree the next day, Jesus enters into the temple. There he finds the situation alarming. Instead of being a place for quiet prayer, the premises of the temple are being used for commerce. Merchants are selling bleating sheep, mooing cattle and birds for sacrifice in the temple. Money-changers are changing Roman currency into the temple’s currency so pilgrims can pay the temple tax. The scene must have been a cacophonous bazaar.
This so upsets Jesus that Jesus picks up a whip and drives all the traders out and overturns the money-changers’ tables. He quotes two Old Testament prophets as rationale. Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of thieves.* Clearly what Jesus the king has found in the temple is not acceptable. It is after this visit that Mark remarks on the fact that the fig tree Jesus has cursed has withered.
An Enacted Parable
What I propose is that we must read the cursing of the fig tree as an enacted metaphor or parable. It is revealing what Jesus has discovered during his royal inspection. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and its magnificent temple and found both spiritually fruitless. They are not fulfilling God’s intention. And so they will pass from the scene. This they both do when in 70 A.D. the Romans conquered the rebellious city and destroy it.
As an enacted parable, the story of the fig tree then makes sense in its context. It may still be troubling to us, as many of Jesus’ parables are. They often contain details that challenge our normal expectations. But the story becomes a way Mark makes a sobering comment on the world into which Jesus enters.**
It is not the only time Mark uses an odd narrative detail to make a theological comment on the actions he has just described. Another example is the odd comment that Mark makes about a naked lad running away from the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51). What is this stray detail doing in the narrative? I propose it too is an enacted metaphor. If you wish to explore what it may be saying about the disciples, turn to my previous posting Naked Lad on the Run.
* Jesus is quoting both Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. It should be noted that all this commerce was taking place in the portion of the temple known as the Court of the Gentiles. It was the only part of the temple that Gentiles might enter. But if they did, they would not have found it a plaza conducive to prayer.
** The gospel of Luke in fact seems to have turned Mark’s incident into a literal parable (see Luke 13:6-9). Was Luke, too, troubled by the story as an event?