Today, in Mark, is one of the most disturbing stories of the New Testament: the cursing of the fig tree. It seems oddly upsetting for those focused on Valentine’s Day. But ironically it fits right in – with the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day.
Jesus was traveling from Bethany to the Temple Mount and sees a fig tree in the distance. He is hungry, and as he comes upon it, realizes it has no fruit on it. He curses the fig tree saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Now, here’s the catch that troubles me: it was not the season for figs. It is not as if this tree is defective. It was cursed for doing exactly what it is supposed to do at that time of year.
So what is going on? Right after this story is the cleansing of the temple. It appears that these two stories are interwoven, meant to work together. Israel is compared to the fruitless fig tree. He gets mad, throws money changer tables, and calls them robbers. Then a day later, as they pass by the fig tree again, Peter is astounded to discover the fig tree has withered.
This is when the story gets even more emotionally evocative. Jesus answers with, “Have faith in God. 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.”
Those of you that have been to Israel with me in 2012 may remember the day we took this journey (sorry 2017ers, we missed this!). I remember passing from Bethany to Bethpage and stopping and pointing off in the distance to a man-made mountain, the Herodium. “Oh look, friends, if you had faith like the Romans you could move mountains.” The Herodium was literally an artificial mountain that had been build by Roman ingenuity and the hard work of Jewish slaves.
Could it be that Jesus was insulting the crowd when he was talking about a mountain being taken up and thrown into the sea? Could it be that he was declaring his fellow Jews had less faith than the Romans? If so, this is quite an insult.
Despite the raised emotions of this passage, it becomes for me a great testament to faith, belief, and prayer. On this sappy day of romantic love (hardly what St. Valentine stood for), Jesus is reminding us that God desires a heart that is in the right place. He is reminding his disciples not to get too complacent and think that just because they are Jews that they are doing everything right. Jesus encourages self-differentiation – honest feedback – “keeping it real” – in a day and time when people rarely say what they mean and do what they say.
This is the call to us today – to keep it real.