Angry Jesus?

MarkDid Jesus ever get angry? Reading Mark 11:11-14 this morning, I came across the curious passage of Jesus cursing the fig tree, before overturning the moneychangers’s table in the temple, after he makes his way into Jerusalem on a donkey. If you read Matthew, Jesus cursed the fig tree after he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and overturned the tables (Mt. 21:17).

Fundamentalists do some mighty mental gymnastics trying to reconcile the two accounts. That’s not necessary because they don’t have to be reconciled. They are two stories from two different viewpoints. Neither writer has the absolute truth. They both could have missed “vital” details along the way. It doesn’t make the account any less “true.” But, Fundamentalists miss the main point when they try to find obscure meaning in every text. Jesus was angry. Yep, Jesus was angry. In Mark, which scholars agree is the earliest gospel, Jesus leaves Jerusalem after his triumphal entry, begins to return to Bethany (Mk. 11:11), curses the tree, and then arrives again at Jerusalem (Mk. 11:15). How can they arrive again at Jerusalem if they are headed to Bethany? Obviously Mark is confused or misremembers the event. What the gospel writers do agree upon is that Jesus is angry. He’s angry at the moneychangers, fig trees, and I believe he’s angry at the disciples for not believing what he’s saying (Mk. 11:21-25). I mean, wouldn’t you be angry?? How dense can everyone be?

I like to believe that Jesus was not thinking about his every movement as a potential teaching tool while he was traveling around with his disciples. I like to think that Jesus was a human being just like you or me and that he grew increasingly frustrated with his mission, the disciples, and the harsh realities of his journey. fig treeHe was hungry and thirsty and here’s a fig tree without any figs on it. What more could go wrong? Then, according to Mark, he goes into Jerusalem and begins overturning tables. Doesn’t this sound like a frustrated man? Catholics have a more theological explanation of course:

Why Curse the Fig Tree?

In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 11, verses 13-14 and 20-26, Jesus sees a fig tree having leaves but no figs. Therefore, Jesus “curses” the fig tree which subsequently withers and dies. My question is, why so harsh a penalty? What purpose did it serve as regards his disciples?

To fully appreciate the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, we should bear several things in mind. For one thing, the Old Testament prophets often performed symbolic acts to gain attention and convey their message. Jeremiah, for instance, was ordered to break a potter’s flask in Israel’s sight, as a symbol of how God will smash Israel (Jeremiah 19). The Prophet Ezekiel packs his bags, digs a hole in the wall and departs through the hole carrying his baggage, symbolizing the exile to come. The Hebrew Scriptures often use figs or the fig tree as a symbol of Israel. In Hosea, for example, we find God saying, “Like grapes in the desert, I found Israel. Like the first fruits of the fig tree in its prime, I considered your fathers” (Hosea 9:10). And in Jeremiah we find, “I will gather them all in, says the Lord: no grapes on the vine, no figs on the fig trees, foliage withered!” (Jeremiah 8:13). And, again, Jeremiah compares the repentant Israelites who will return from the exile to a basket of good, edible figs while he compares Zedekiah and the princes to a basket of bad figs which cannot be eaten. Finally, we should put the Gospel incident back in context. Mark’s story of the fig tree is sandwiched around his account of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. It is interesting to note that when Matthew tells of Jesus cursing the fig tree he omits the fact figs were not yet in season. Admittedly, this is a bothersome detail and something of a distraction. But it should not lead us away from the point. Whatever is to be said about figs being in season, Jesus wants to teach a lesson in the here and now. He can’t wait around for two or three months until the fig crop is due! The point, then, for the apostles is the fruitlessness of the Temple worship and piety at Jesus’ time. Like the fig tree’s abundance of green leaves, the activities of the Temple give the impression of religious vitality, but the Temple worship is barren. Henry Wansbrough, O.S.B., points this out in his commentary on Mark in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nelson). Jesus is hungry for the fruit of good works. As Wansbrough says later, commenting on the text in Matthew, Jesus’ action is a warning to the religion’s leaders not to reject the grace of God present in Jesus. Jesus’ action, then, is prophetic and symbolic. And in the dark days ahead, the apostles are to recall the power of Jesus’ word. They are to continue to have faith in Jesus and act out of faith. Faith in Jesus and the power of their prayer will enable them to overcome all obstacles (www.americancatholic.org)

Sounds plausible, but why not just accept that Jesus was angry? Wouldn’t that be how the first century believers would have interpreted the event? I gained more insight on the way to work this morning. I usually have a 30-40 minute commute one way each morning and evening. This morning I was all proud of myself for praying on the way in and BAM! some yahoo cuts in front of me at the last minute. Curses flew, prayers were forgotten, and then came instant regret, “Oops, sorry God, I’m not very christian if I pray one minute and curse others the next.” Then I thought of the fig tree and the curious passage which follows it in Mark 11:

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22Jesus answered them, “Haveb faith in God. 23Truly 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. 24So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have receivedc it, and it will be yours.

25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”d

Could it be that Jesus regretted his rash actions during the fig tree incident or the moneychanger’s incident? If not, why would he speak of forgiveness when explaning this episode? I like to think that if Jesus was tempted in all ways we were, as theologians like to tell us, that Jesus could have committed and regretted rash acts or words. To me, it makes him all the more worthy of respect and worship. Like Jesus, we can recognize that we are human and react in human ways. That doesn’t make us unworthy of God’s love or condemn us. We can turn to God and tell Him that we fail. Unlike Adam, we don’t run and hide when we make mistakes. We turn around (repent) and face up to it. Instead of castigating myself for not being perfect or for being angry with my fellow drivers, I’m thankful I can catch myself and ask forgiveness immediately.

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4 thoughts on “Angry Jesus?

  1. If Mark was confused, then perhaps he was confused about everything and there is no point in reading his gospel. Or perhaps only people who have a religious education can tell the rest of us what bits to believe.

  2. I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The point is, I think, that christians focus far too much on who wrote the bible and how accurate it is instead of taking a lesson from what’s actually IN the passage. Maybe Mark was confused, but his story is still his story. I don’t believe those with religious educations can tell us in our spirit what a story has to convey for us at that moment. The gospel is in the reading of it, not in the telling. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  3. I realize there are some difficulties reconciling the accounts of the fig tree in Matthew and Mark, but I think you need to read Mark’s account again. I read no confusion in his account, Your rendering of it is mixed up though, unless you’re reading a translation I don’t have. Mark 11:11 says it was late when Jesus got to the Temple and so he went back to Bethany (where he and the disciples seem to have “camped” that week, presumably at the home of Lazarus & Martha & Mary). Mark 11:12 states, “The next day as they were leaving Bethany…” he saw the tree and cursed it. He then proceeded into Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, and according to Mk. 11:19, when evening came they went oiut of the city (back to Bethany?). It was the next day again, two days after the “triumphal entry”, that the disciples noticed the tree had withered. Matthew’s account has some time challenges if we are to try to make it agree with Mark’s, but I wouldn’t call them mighty mental gymnastics. I agree, chronology was not the gospel writersfirst concern, and reconciling every little detail is not necessary. But we do need to read carefully :-).

    sk

  4. Steve,
    Since I read and interpret college literature for a living, I hardly need lessons on reading carefully. But I understand that faith can blind your interpretation and you’re forgiven for being careless and prideful in your comments.

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