I planned to preach from Psalm 118 this Sunday and probably will still refer to it one way or another. Since this is the Psalm the lectionary provides for every Palm Sunday and because it is quoted in the New Testament, I've already interacted with this Psalm a number of times before. Some conglomeration of what I've written here, here, and here will probably all end up in my sermon this Sunday. But for now I want to focus on one particular irony of the way this Psalm shows up in the Gospel of Mark.
It is especially striking to me the way quotations from Psalm 118 form bookends to a group of stories in Mark 11 and 12. The (sort of) short version, without rehearsing too much of what I've said in those other posts, is that Jesus rides into Jerusalem during the week of Passover and the crowds welcome him with shouts of "Hossana!" and "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." That is to say, the people are welcoming Jesus as their deliverer by using the words of Psalm 118, a psalm used at Passover as a celebration of the Lord's deliverance. Jesus' procession stops at the Temple, much as the Passover procession in which Psalm 118 was recited climaxed as the temple, but Jesus' procession is sort of anti-climatic in that after arriving at the Temple he simply leaves.
On the following day, he is on his way back to the Temple when he spots a fig tree. Upon closer examination, Jesus finds that the tree is not bearing fruit and curses it. This seems a little unfair for the poor fig tree since Mark notes that it was not even the season for figs. Apparently still grumpy about missing out on his fig-breakfast, Jesus then enters the Temple and does his whole righteous anger thing, kicking out all those buying and selling. Upon leaving the Temple, the disciples notice that the fig tree Jesus cursed has withered. It is here that we see a piece of Mark's masterful story telling on display: the fig tree is a symbol for the Temple in that it too has failed to bear fruit and is now out of season. As a result, Jesus cursed it just as he did the fig tree.
Naturally, the religious leaders want to know where Jesus gets his authority for all this cursing and carrying on. So they ask him. And naturally, Jesus answers with an enigmatic question of his own and a story. The story is about some tenants who refuse to give the landowner his share of the harvest. The tenants beat and reject the owner's servants and even kill his son. At this point even the religious leaders agree that those tenants are in trouble. Jesus then responds with more words from Psalm 118; "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes." Mark notes upon the conclusion of this story and quotation that the religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid to do so because of the people.
So we have this pattern:
Quote from Psalm 118
A tree that fails to produce its fruit
A temple that fails to produce its fruit
Tenants that fail to produce their fruit
Quote from Psalm 118
It would seem Mark wants us to read these stories about failures of fruit bearing within the framework of deliverance celebrated in Psalm 118. When we do so, these stories become thick with irony. In Psalm 118, it was Israel which was the stone the builders (the other nations) rejected but that God made the chief cornerstone of his plan. The religious leaders saw themselves as protecting Israel's place in that plan. However, Jesus has declared their efforts fruitless and proclaimed that he is now God's chosen cornerstone; that it is through himself that the deliverance of Psalm 118 will come. The words of the very same Psalm can be used in the people's celebration of Jesus' deliverance and the religious leaders rejection of him. And in doing that rejecting, the religious leaders show themselves to be exactly the fruitless tenants who reject God's chosen one that Jesus has said they are. They fulfill his prophecy about them in their rejection of him as a prophet.
Despite the literary intricacy and skill involved in Mark's telling of these stories, I suppose the question for us is still a relatively simple one. Do our lives bear the fruit of God's deliverance? However, if the question is simple, Mark's telling of the story cautions us against a simplistic answer. For we must remember that the religious leaders would have readily answered this question with a clear and resolute "Yes! Of course, we are bearing the fruit of God's deliverance. We are God's chosen, after all!" It might be just as tempting for us to say "Yes! Of course, we are bearing the fruit of God's deliverance. We are Christians, after all!". Perhaps we too have confused certain labels and institutions with real fruit bearing. May these final weeks of Lent be a time when we re-examine our assumptions about what kind of fruit it is that God desires.