27 May 2016

Who Do You Say That I am? Jesus and the Cursing of the Fig Tree

This week I spent time "walking around" in the enacted parables which comprised today's Gospel. It was the wonderful Markan construction involving the cleansing of the Temple sandwiched between the first and second halves of the parable of the cursing of the fig tree. As often happens with Jesus' parables I heard Jesus asking the really critical question which is at the heart of all faith or, depending on our answer, all unfaith: "Who do you say that I am?"

Introduction, Parables once again:

Like all parables, spoken or enacted, today's were meant to provide us with a sacred space in which we can enter in and meet Christ and the question of who he is face to face. Remember the word parable comes from two Greek words, para = alongside of (like paralegals and paramedics who work alongside attorneys and physicians), and the verb ballein = to thrown down. Jesus' parables work by laying down a world view, a way of understanding or seeing, a certain perspective or set of values which are familiar and allow us to enter in to the story comfortably and without fear or other baggage. Then, Jesus says or does something which off-foots us; it may disturb, disorient, shock or, as is the case in today's Gospel, even offend us and cause us to cry out, "UNFAIR!" in objection. Ordinarily this thing Jesus says or does represents our way into  a new world, a new way of seeing, a new perspective or set of values. It presents us with a choice: the status quo or this new way of being.

At bottom our choice is always between "the world" as common sense sees it (for instance) and the Kingdom Jesus proclaims. In today's Gospel since it is an enacted parable rather than one Jesus tells us directly, that bottom line question is about Jesus himself, "Who is he really? Is he just another person whose expectations are unreasonable and who can't handle the disappointment that is sure to come when he is faced with reality? Is he a short-tempered, impatient religious zealot who can't handle the fact that God (or the dominant religion and its leadership) are not really in his control? Or, is he something very much more and more mysterious than these things? And if the latter, then what or who is he? When I regain my balance within this parable and return to my ordinary reality, on what ground will I take my stand? In what soil will my heart and mind be rooted? Who, in fact, will I say that he is?

The Cursing of the Fig Tree: Expecting Fruit in Season and Out

Two parts of this Fig Tree--Temple--Fig Tree sandwich were especially important to me this week in answering that question afresh. The first was the section on the cursing of the fig tree which, admittedly, I never have "gotten". What Jesus does in this section always strikes me as unreasonable, unfair, and maybe even unworthy of someone we claim to be God's Messiah. To approach a fig tree in leaf expecting fruit when it is not the time for fruit is silly enough, but to then curse the fig tree so that no one will ever eat from it again when it is simply being its natural self is simply outrageous --- even if Jesus DOES have such a power (and at this point in the story, as well as with Jesus' apparent tantrum in the Temple, that question is still unanswered).

But then, along with reminding myself of how parables work, I recalled something I had read a few years ago: Namely, in Jesus' day it was thought that when the Eschaton arrived fruit trees would bear fruit all year around. From there my mind made the simple leap to Paul's exhortation that Christians be persons who proclaim the Good News with their lives, "in season and out".  And I thought about Jesus (in whomever this occurs) approaching me because he was hungry. I thought of all the times folks have come to me because they needed food of various sorts and, for whatever reason, I simply could not give them what they needed. Sometimes it was because of insecurity or fear; sometimes it was because my own woundedness needed healing. Sometimes it was because I couldn't translate the theology I knew into the heart-touching nourishment it was meant to be. And sometimes it was because I let prayer or lectio or Scripture slide for a time and tried to feed them today on what was days or even weeks old.

Because we are empowered by an ever-faithful God we Christians are those who feed the persons who come to us hungry whether it is a time of plenty for us or a time of famine, whether it is a good day or a bad one, whether we are insecure or confident, are immensely talented, lack a discrete talent, or whatever constrains us. The Gospel of the God who brings life out of death, light out of darkness, and multiplies the meagre loaves and fishes of our lives into Eucharistic abundance makes that possible. So, this week when I heard the question, "Who do you say that I am?" I knew that part of the answer was that Jesus was the One who made me more capable of being that person I am called to be in him --- the one who is both challenged and empowered to bear fruit in season and out, the hermit who bears witness to a love that transforms isolation into the covenantal reality called "the silence of solitude". It's not very commonsensical maybe but it is the wisdom of the Kingdom.

The Teaching On Prayer and the Power to Move Mountains:

The second part of this Markan theological sandwich that challenged and posed the question "Who do you say that I am?" this week had to do with Jesus' teaching on prayer. Things in this part of the reading moved along relatively smoothly for me until Jesus said, [[Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in her heart but believes that what she says will happen, it shall be done for her.]] This line represented one of those classic Jesuan "parable moments" that off-foot and disorient, trouble and challenge. It stopped me in my tracks. And so, as I was praying with this text I heard myself saying (in shades of Peter!), "Lord you know I believe, you know I trust you, BUT. . ." There's a whole world of doubt locked inside that single word, BUT: "But I don't believe I can just pluck up and toss mountains into the sea, but I don't know if I will ever be without doubt, I know your language is symbolic BUT. . ."  Whether it was the puckish part of my own heart or whether it was Jesus speaking with own his characteristic gentleness and wry humor, I heard in response, "Laurel, who ever said the mountain had to be moved in one fell swoop?!"

And in response I looked back at what was the landscape of my life and was freshly awed to find that most of the mountains I thought were insurmountable obstacles that could never be moved, climbed, or otherwise overcome --- much less handily tossed into some sea or other --- had dissolved. Oh sure, it took work, and patience;  it took innumerable  small acts of faithfulness and some larger ones as well, but especially it took the grace of God mediated in so many ways that empowered and let me transcend my own powerlessness. And in this way, stone by stone, tree by tree, piece by boulder by piece, those mountains had gone. They had been thrown into the sea. So, when it came time to answer Jesus' implicit question, "Who do you say that I am?" my new answer had to be, "You are the One who teaches me to pray, the One in whom my heart sings with freedom; you are the One with and in whom I have moved mountains!'


Parables are powerful language events capable of giving birth to faith and transforming our minds and hearts in an encounter with God. If we are off-footed, disturbed, or even offended by the second set of values, the new perspective, the counterintuitive world view Jesus throws down for us --- if we conclude it is a "difficult word" or "hard saying" we just "don't get", we should be reassured that Jesus' parable is doing exactly what his parables are meant to do. Like the Pool of Siloam that must be stirred up to heal, the parable stirs us up; it breaks open our minds and hearts so we may embrace the new way of seeing and being that is associated with the Kingdom of God. In today's Gospel Jesus may be an irascible, impatient, idealist with messianic delusions and an unreasonable and impossibly demanding set of religious beliefs. Or we may just have met the One who brings the Eschaton, the One who makes fruitful in season and out as he welcomes us into the very Life of God. One way or the other once we enter the space  created by Jesus' parables, the question of faith, the question of who we say Jesus is, is one we will not be able to leave unanswered.