Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is Jesus A Tree Hater: Mat 21:19

Once Jesus cursed a tree for not having fruit and it withered down to its roots. He did so despite it not being the season for figs. Does this seem a little harsh? A least a little petty? We love when Jesus heals the sick and feeds the masses. But Jesus cursing? How do we revere or emulate an angry Jesus? The answer has a lot to do with corrupt institutionalized religion.

First of all, fig tree leaves come after its first round of fruit.[1] Jesus is not upset for a tree because its fruit was out of season. Jesus is upset that the leaves falsely suggested the presense of fruit.

Jesus is not speaking to a tree. We have to get this. Jesus is speaking to a symbol of the temple, indeed of the nation itself.[2] Jesus has just "cleansed" the temple by kicking out currency exchangers and sacrifice sellers and calls them thieves. The false pretenses of the fig tree is no different than the corruption found in the flowering, lush Herodian temple of the time. The cursing of the one is the cursing of the other. The two passages are put next to each other purposely so we would see the connection between the two.

Why does Jesus talk about faith that moves mountains here if the lesson is about judgement on the temple? But the lesson is not about any mountain. The text tips us off that something very specific is in view when Jesus says, "THIS mountain". There is only one mountain in Jerusalem famous enough for everyone listening to assume it immediately, Mount Zion, on which sat the temple.[3]

Many have suggested that the sacrificial system itself was an evil that needed to be ended in favor of receiving forgiveness through Jesus. There are several problems with this line of thinking.

1) God is the one who commanded the temple to be built and designed its policies and procedures. God may have temporarily adapted and modified ancient world forms of worship, but in so doing they recieved God's approval. Treating the temple system as a passing form of worship does not do justice to Jesus' anger at the first century temple. Something was wrong in the temple.

2) God had already destroyed the temple once before six centuries earlier. If God was progressively revealing something about the nature of worship, God would not have commanded that it be rebuilt, nor would its rebuilding have been such a joyous occasion.

3) The first time it was destroyed it was because of the unfaithfulness of the nation's leaders, not because they were carrying out the duties God assigned. There is no other reason to assume the destruction spoken by Jesus is anything different.

4) In the absense of ritual sacrifice, God accepted simple prayer and heartfelt repentance. Daniel's famous prayer of confession and repentance on behalf of the nation, even while the temple lay desolate, is testimony to this fact.[4] Viewing the sacrificial ritual as the only means of atonement is an overly simplisitic view of the Hebrew Bible.

The problem with the temple wasn't that it utilized animal sacrifice,[5] but that its leaders did so in such a way to fleece its worships and offend penitent seekers. Fourty years after Jesus predicted the temple's demise, The Roman army besieged Jerusalem and leveled the temple.

What is the application for today if the temple has already been destroyed? Every act of God reveals God's character and expectations. It forms a consistent pattern that extends to similar circumstances. Whenever the institionalized church begins to resemble the corruption of the first century temple, we stand in the same predicament. If God did not spare the temple, why would God spare a church that does the same?[6]

Nothing sickens my gut worse than ministers who abuse the vulnerable. It might be a tele-evangelist soliciting funds with empty promises of healing, or celibate priests who scar kids in the worst way possible. This passage is about ministers who steal tithes and offerings and run to the next church. This passage is about a system so offensive that new visitors can’t bring themselves to turn toward God and pray. Can we all agree that corrupt religion is a problem? Can we agree that it deserves to be judged by God?

I love the church, but when it begins to resemble something Jesus cursed, something rotten to the core, there’s a problem. Jesus is asking you and me to name it and have the faith that what we say about it has the power to make it crumble. If God did not spare the temple, why would God spare a church that does the same?

Jesus is not asking us to yell at our problems, or bills, or depression, or disease. This is not about complaining to a minister that their sermon is too long, or that the carpet is the wrong color. Nor is this about Jesus being upset with me if I’m not a good, spirit filled, “fruitful” Christian (while this may be true). All of these common applications cheapen Jesus intent. Jesus is telling us to do something much tougher, something that takes much more courage. This passage is about speaking truth to power, corrupt religious power.


[1] Fig trees are polinated exclusivly by the fig wasp. In order to jump start the polination process each year the fig tree puts out "early" fruit to entice the wasps to enter some blossoms and lay eggs. These early figs are not known for being large or tasty, but some do eat them.

[2] In several places in the Hebrew Bible, Israel is pictured as aplant which is judged by God for not producing its crop (like Jer 11:16 and Ezek 15:6). Using this same analogy, Isaiah 5 is beautiful parable about a vineyard which God plants and tends. In the middle of this vineyard God erects a watchtower and waits for sweet grapes to grow. Instead only bitter grapes are produced. So God decides to “break down its walls,” “let animals trample it,” “and let it become overgrown with wild plants.” In searing revelation, the prophet interprets this parable saying, “The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.” To ancient Jews, the central watchtower could evoke images of only one thing, Judaism's most central structure, the temple itself. No one would miss the connotation the miraculous death of a fruitless tree would have had among a people pictured as God’s garden.

[3] Synoptic parallels tie mountain uprooting and tree cursing together. This demonstrates that the two teachings are linked in the minds of the gospel writers. Compare Mat 17:20; 21:21; Mark 11:22-23; Luke 17:6.

[4] Daniel 9:4-19. There are hints of forgiveness based on heartfelt prayer and repentence throughout the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 51:16-17; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8.

[5] The real reason we tend to pit Jesus against the sacrificial system is that we are inherently prejudice against forms of worship with which we are unfamiliar. We are offended at its viceral aspects and need to justify our non-use. A better perspective of Jesus' critques of the temple are as refinements of an inherently good system. This is the spirit of Malachi 3:1-4, the goal of which is that offerings will be done with righteousness and be accepted by God. 

[6] Romans 11:17-21; Hebrews 12:25

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