Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Fruit and Temples

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.


J. Thomas said...

In recent months I have been reflecting on the specific target of Jesus' judgment in passages such as this one. I agree completely that the fig tree serves as a near prophetic fulfillment of Jesus' cursing of the temple in Jerusalem.

With that said, however, was Jesus judging the Jewish leadership for a reality that might-not-have-been, or, given the trajectory of Torah, was the condition in which Jesus found the temple, temple leadership, and Judaism generally, in one way or another, inevitable? In other words, might Jesus' judgment have fallen on the people only, or might it also have fallen on Torah?

David Young said...

I am going to say there was a certain kind of inevitability to the conditions of the first century but because of the human condition, not because Torah failed to do something it was supposed to do. That is to say essentially what Paul has said in Romans 7:12-13. (Again, I recognize the possible problems with constantly seeking to understand the historical Jesus through Paul but I also wonder what better source we could possibly have to help us wrestle with this issue than a faithful, first century Jew like Paul.) In other words, I think it was always possible for Israel to seek to fulfill Torah in the right way, that is, by the power of the Spirit. Indeed, certain individuals in the OT did just that to varying degrees. However, I think we also needed to be shown that these were exceptions and that our tendency is toward self-reliance. I think that is one of the major themes of Israel's history. Therefore, I would say that the condition of Israel in the first century was inevitable due to the way our sinful nature leads us to interact with Torah rather than a failing of Torah itself.

Of course, one might simply push the question back a step and ask why God designed Torah in this "incomplete" way to begin with. But then I think we are reminded that the purpose of the Torah's "incompleteness" is to lead us to God and so actually it is doing perfectly and completely what it was created to do.

In fact, as I think about it in just those terms, it gives the idea of Jesus' fulfilling the Law new meaning for me. That is, we often think of the Law as something separate from Jesus that he has to fulfill by living it faithfully like any other Jew. But what if in addition to fulfilling it in that way he also fulfills it in an entirely unique way; that is, he makes it complete by being the presence of God in it? In other words, he fulfills it not merely by following it but by making it complete precisely in the ways that we've been talking about it being incomplete; he supplies the presence of God along side of it. After all, the Torah is really a kind of extension of Jesus himself in that they are both the Word. Perhaps then rather than saying that Jesus judged Torah, for that would be like judging himself, we can say that Jesus completes Torah with the personal presence of God.

Those are just some rough thoughts but will have to do for now. Your thoughts?