07 February 2010

Fig trees

I was reading Matthew's Gospel, chapter 21, verses 1-22 this morning. It is the passage where Jesus quite deliberately presents Himself as the Messianic King:
1And when they drew nigh unto Jerusalem, and were come to Bethphage, unto the mount of Olives, then sent Jesus two disciples, 2Saying unto them, Go into the village over against you, and straightway ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: loose them, and bring them unto me. 3And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them. 4All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass. 6And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, 7And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon. 8And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. 9And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

He then cleanses the temple, and performs miracles of healing. The Jewish authorities get the message, all right:

15And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased, 16And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

I was deeply struck by the terrible incident of the withering of the fig tree:

18Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. 19And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.

The meaning of Jesus's act is, I thought (and still think), abundantly clear. Israel is the fig tree. Israel is viewed, nationally, as rejecting the Messiah; Israel itself is to be rejected. Luke's Gospel does not have this episode, but it has the related one in chapter 13:6-9 about the unfruitful fig tree.

There is, however, something strange about the text at this point. And I don't know what to make of it. I had intended this post to be clear about receiving God's grace immediately and not waiting. A limit may be reached.

Then I read (in both Matthew's and Mark's gospels) Our Lord's commentary (from Mark's gospel, the more striking of the two):

20And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. 21And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. 22And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God. 23For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

This is quite frightening. What can Jesus mean? It sounds as though it's just a matter of screwing up my 'faith' - and I can have that Mercedes-Benz that Janis Joplin asked for.

I do not know where to go with that, but I have a hint - one that, perhaps, I am not very keen to deal with - in what follows in Mark's account:

25And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

I think that all three lessons are contained in this one passage:

  1. Respond with alacrity and docility (teachableness) to God's graces. Although AD 30 (or whenever Jesus was crucified) was not the end for Israel - AD 70 was, at least in the fashion Israel had expected. My past obedience to God does not save up brownie points for the future. It is always now that matters. It is not without reason that we pray, in the "Hail, Mary" - "pray for us now, and at the hour of our death."
  2. Pray believing in God. Pray, indeed, in His will. I may not pray for that Mercedes-Benz (unless, indeed, I am convinced it is what God wants); I must not pray doubting. If I pray, I have no business praying for something that I do not think is His will. And if I think it is - pray believing.
  3. And this 2nd point, if I think about it, is the same as the first. Thy will be done. Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory.

  4. What hits home to me is this: "if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in Heaven forgive."

So this is not about Israel. This is not about Janis Joplin. This is about me.

All of this is a bit muddled. When I began this post I thought I knew where I was going. I did not know where I would end up. May God give me the grace to forgive - not to forgive, merely, where there are mitigating circumstances; to forgive where guilt is unquestionable; to forgive where hope of justice is not there; to forgive because He offers forgiveness to me for my own - otherwise unforgivable - sins.


Edgy said...

this passage has always intrigued me too, there are so many different interpretations.

it's humbling, that's for sure.
thanks dad.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Intriguing, indeed. There are some in the 'health and wealth' gospel who take poor Janis's approach - just screw up your 'faith' and you will get that Mercedes-Benz (personally I think I would rather have a Volvo, but that's just boring me).

But what fascinated me was the triple conjunction:

1) Jerusalem's final warning

2) Promise of answer to prayer

3) Warning (in Mark) against unforgiveness.

I started the post with just 1) in mind and was going to say something about the danger of neglecting God's offers of grace to us.

But then I got ... well, perhaps 'confused' isn't the right word, but at least intrigued.

John from Canada said...

Re: screwing up your faith: other relevant texts are John 14:12-13, John 15:7, Matt 7:7-11. I think we need them all to understand properly what Jesus means. Matthew 7 notes the Father's benevolence, Matthew 21 and John 14 the faith of the person praying, and John 15 the unity of the person praying with the person and the words of Christ. So if "faith in God" in the context of the passage means all these things, such as unity of the person with Christ, then it's clearly not a matter of "will to believe" (sorry Janis, Kenneth Hagin and the rest).

Note we rely on this promise when we ask the Saints for their intercession: we trust that when they ask, God will grant.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Just last night I was meditating on this subject - "whatever you ask, believing, you will receive" - and the other slightly worrying passage came to mind.

"...go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me" (Mark 10:21 - and parallel passages in Matthew and Luke)

I have brooded over that passage for years.

And last night I felt the Lord was telling me something about the first. You want all your prayers answered? Here is the way.


Not my house, my car, my books - at least, not necessarily. Insofar as I do not possess them - or they me - I may be - God grant it! - 'giving them to the poor' by the way I use them.

What about my time - that is my time - those things that, when I feel certain God wants something of me, I do those things first?

Well, I think you know what I mean :-)

John from Canada said...

Are you brooding over the story of the rich young man because you think it is general and thus a call for everyone? If so, then I am not so sure it is: Jesus does request, generally, taking up of one's cross, but to sell everything and give all to the poor, he asks only of this man, not of everyone.

John Thayer Jensen said...

I don't know why I'm brooding over it :-)

It just came on me a few years ago. I agree. In the literal sense, of course it is not for everyone.

But ... it won't leave me ... and now it joins forces with "ask ... and it shall be given."