Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
Good morning! I am so excited to be starting this new sermon series about some of the weird stories in the Bible and where we can see God in them. You know, these are strange times. Weird things are happening. And I’m not just talking about the strange things that COVID has brought, like our country almost completely shutting down for weeks, empty streets and closed businesses, grocery stores running out of toilet paper and soap, basically every scheduled event being cancelled or delayed, sports teams playing in empty stadiums, and drive-in drag shows and concerts.
All of those things have definitely made 2020 weird—but does anyone else remember the 2-inch-long murder hornets that were around earlier this year? Or maybe that Planters killed off Mr. Peanut and then reincarnated him into a baby peanut in its winter and spring commercials? How about that the Pentagon declassified and released information and video of UFOs?
…and for my people who enjoy watching TV or Netflix shows—how can we forget the national phenomenon that was Tiger King a few months ago? Or that Sarah Palin dressed up like a bear and rapped Baby Got Back on the Masked Singer?
There’s no way around it, this year has been weird! But, as Christians we are used to weird, right? I mean, the Bible is full of weird stories….stories that make no sense at all to people living in America in 2020. Stories about great floods and talking donkeys and a prophet riding around in the belly of a big fish and a man falling out of a window because he fell asleep while Paul was preaching….okay, maybe some of us can relate to that last one.
In this morning’s scripture, Jesus gets really really mad at a tree. Not only does he get mad at a tree, but he curses it so that it immediately withers and dies—all because it wasn’t currently covered in fruit.
That’s weird, right? It doesn’t mesh with our understanding of who Jesus is. The Gospels show Jesus to be a great teacher, a healer, a champion of the oppressed. His triumphant entry into Jerusalem surrounded by crowds calling out “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” was only the day before he got really mad at this tree. Why would he do something as petulant as cursing this poor tree that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with no fruit on it?
This is one of those verses that theologians have been wrestling with for thousands of years. Most of the resources I use to do research for my sermons have either ignored it all together or have barely grazed the surface of it, choosing to focus on the part of the story where Jesus talks to his disciples about faith. If a pastor chooses to tackle this story, they have to do their best to try to make sense of something that just seems senseless. UCC Minister and Seminary Professor Rev. Mary Luti puts it this way in her devotional on Matthew 21:
“You read that right. Jesus cursed a fruitless fig tree. And it died. But wait, didn’t he tell the gardener to tend it, then come back to see how it’s doing in a year?
No, that’s a different fig tree from a parable about how patient God is. Here, apparently, Jesus isn’t.
So, what IS going on?
Well, some people say it means Jesus will damn us too, if we don’t bear fruit. Or, horribly, that the cursed tree represents Jews who rejected Jesus. Or that it’s about faith. If you had it, you could move mountains. Or kill a tree.
Are you liking those interpretations? I’m not. No way around it: Jesus woke up ravenous, looked for figs, didn’t get any, got mad, and blasted away. No good news in that.”
I have to say I agree with her, none of that seems like good news to me. So, what else could be going on here?
Well, this scripture says that Jesus was hungry. So, maybe he was just hangry. Have you ever heard that term, hangry? It’s when you are so hungry that it makes you angry. It reminds me of those Snickers commercials, you may know the ones I’m talking about, that feature a celebrity acting badly until they eat a snickers bar and become a regular person again? My favorite one shows Betty White playing football poorly and with a bad attitude. During the team huddle someone gives Betty a Snickers, and when she eats it, she turns back into a young football player. The commercial ends with the phrase, “You’re not you when you’re hungry!”
So….maybe Jesus should have grabbed a Snickers that day? Maybe, Jesus, just wasn’t himself when he was hungry and he took it out on that tree?
But if we read this scripture again, and we start earlier on in the chapter we can see that less than 24 hours before this Jesus was flipping over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, telling them that they had turned a house of prayer into a den of robbers. He was disappointed and enraged at the way the house of God was being used by manipulative and money-hungry people who wanted to take advantage of the poor. Maybe this had an impact on his mood, maybe this was still on his mind the next morning when he was traveling with his disciples.
It also was at the beginning of Holy Week, the week leading to his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Maybe he was starting to realize that his death was coming and inevitable, that the powers that be were not going to let him continue to preach truth to power. Maybe he was afraid. Maybe he just wanted something good to eat to take his mind of off things.
If, as many of us believe, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human—it is possible that after a hard 24 hours he had a human moment of disappointment, of anger, and he lashed out.
Can any of us blame him for that? I know I can’t, because I’ve been there. I mean, I’ve never killed a tree- but just a few weeks ago, Kelsee and I decided that we were going to go get our favorite tacos on Sunday after church. This was a big deal, because our COVID budget has us cooking almost all of our own meals and eating a lot of leftovers. So, we were looking forward to these tacos for days….only to find out after we left the house with completely empty stomachs that our favorite taco place is closed on Sundays!
I tell you what, I was pretty disappointed that I wasn’t able to have my quesadilla tacos and agua fresca that afternoon—and unlike Jesus, I hadn’t been walking through the desert all morning on an empty stomach. I wasn’t exhausted and hungry and just wanting a couple of figs to help take the edge off.
If this is what happened, if Jesus had a human moment of disappointment and anger and lashed out, can any of us say we have not done the same? I doubt it. But that’s not what I want us to take away from this story. What I want us to take away is that after Jesus had his hangry moment, he didn’t stop there. He didn’t stay in that angry place. He realized that he could use what happened for good. He could use it to teach his disciples a lesson about faith and prayer. He could redeem this moment.
Rev. Mary Luti also finds redemption in this story, she ends her devotion by saying:
“No way around it: Jesus woke up ravenous, looked for figs, didn’t get any, got mad, and blasted away. No good news in that.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to think about. Maybe this:
People need food. They do shocking things on empty stomachs. It’s hard to be rational when something so basic is arbitrarily denied. It’s rage-inducing.
Sometimes rage fuels the good. But sometimes it just rages, withering everything in sight. Yes, it’d be better if disappointment and frustration found more constructive channels. There’s no excuse for violence. You can’t defend what Jesus did.
But…fig trees are supposed to give figs.
But….hungry people are supposed to eat.
This story is confounding, O God. But so is human hunger, unaccountably unmet. Have mercy on us.”
Rev. Luti is right, this is a confounding story. It’s confusing. It’s…dare I say it? Weird. I can’t tell you why the authors of the Gospels decided to include it in their account of Jesus’ life. Maybe like some theologians have surmised, it’s because they saw it as Jesus acting out a parable. Maybe they saw it as a miracle even if it wasn’t one of his kindest or most loving. But maybe, it is just a moment where Jesus was hungry and showed his humanity.
Maybe it shows us that even Jesus broke down when things got hard. Maybe it shows us that we don’t need to be perfect to be followers of Christ, that we can forgive ourselves and each other for messing up when we are hurting.
So many of us are hurting and stressed right now—between COVID, the economic and social consequences of living through a pandemic, and this election season, it’s hard not to be feeling the stress and anxiety in our bodies and in our spirits. If that’s you this morning, I invite you to remember that even Jesus got stressed and messed up sometimes. The important thing is to keep moving forward and maybe try to find some redemption in your pain. We are resurrection people, and that means that we believe that the worst thing is never the last thing. We will get through this, together. Amen.