Good morning friends! Grace and peace to you all in the name of God our creator, Jesus Christ our trusted redeemer, and the Holy Spirit that fills us, sustains us, and inspires us to act. I’m excited and grateful to St. Matthew’s, and I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to preach for you and to be a part of your regular worship, although I wish it were under other circumstances. I also planned on recording this in the chapel at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, but plans change, so now I’m here at home.
So let’s start with the Gospel reading today. If the Gospel of Matthew is an action movie, this is a slow-burning scene, filled with dramatic pauses and a slow building tension in the silences. It’s dialogue-heavy, but there’s suggestion, misdirection—Jesus and the chief priests engaged in a subtle battle of wits. The temple authorities want to arrest Jesus, want to get him out of the temple one way or another, but they need a reason. They can’t just grab Jesus and come up with a story later, because people are watching. The temple is full of people watching and listening, so the priests have to be subtle. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” If this were the first scene in the movie, we’d be intrigued, maybe confused: “What things?” We’d wonder why the chief priests were so bent on taking Jesus down, and we’d be stunned by the flash of an inscrutable mix of emotions on Jesus’s face. But then, naturally, there’d be a dramatic flashback as we jump back in time for answers. “24 hours earlier.”
Of course, this is not the first scene of the movie. Much later, it turns out. And this quiet scene of public confrontation actually comes toward the end of one of the most action-packed chapters of the whole gospel. So we’ll just flashback to there (more or less 24 hours earlier, as it turns out). Chapter 21 starts with the Palm Sunday procession. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. Then we cut to the temple, the center of Judean life and the center of power for the Judean elites. Jesus is flipping tables over, driving out of the temple all of those there preying on the weak and the poor—the money changers, the merchants selling doves to be used as sacrifices.
Jesus leaves the city for the night and comes back the next day. Now—we’ve almost caught back up to the dialogue in the temple. We can see why the chief priests might be upset. They ask Jesus about his authority because he represents a challenge to their authority! but there’s one last scene right before our reading today. You might call it a deleted scene, actually. It’s from the “director’s cut,” the special edition. By that I mean, this scene isn’t in our lectionary. It didn’t make it into the 3-year Sunday rotation; it got trimmed out of the movie before the premiere. Anyway, I think it’s interesting. And it might give us some insight into what Jesus is thinking and feeling as he gets pulled over by the temple officials that day.
Starting at Matthew chapter 21 verse 18, right after Jesus left the city for the night. Listen carefully, and maybe you’ll be able to guess why this text got left out of the lectionary: “In the morning, when he(Jesus) returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.’”
Kind of a weird story, right? Kind of makes it a different sort of film almost—less action and more avant-garde, artsy, modern, and confusing. “Jesus curses a fig tree to death.” And in the Gospel of Mark’s version of the story, the writer even says the fig tree was out of season. That poor tree! Reading this growing up, I couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus killed a tree. And quite frankly, I feel like I wasn’t alone. That’s probably why it’s not in the lectionary. What are we to make of a story like that?
Now some Bible scholars say people reading and studying the Bible in the past didn’t have any difficulty with this passage before the last hundred, couple hundred years or so—and not because suddenly we care about trees—but because we’re the first readers to read this and to take it literally, to actually think that Jesus literally cursed a tree to death. The gospel writers included this story for a reason, for a narrative purpose. The Gospel of Matthew is not a documentary film, so to ask if Jesus really killed a tree is to miss the point. It’s not about the tree. I actually don’t know if the Gospel writer could make it any more obvious that it’s not about the tree. In the story, Jesus curses the tree, and then turns to the disciples and essentially says (I’m paraphrasing): “Truly I tell you, if you have faith, you too can curse fig trees to death.” We’re used to disciples with the power to heal or cast out evil spirits, but herbicide seems new. So, clearly, it’s not about fig trees. But what is it about?
The day before, we’re told, Jesus cleansed the temple—driving out the merchants and money changers, saying “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” It sounds like he was angry before he came to the fig tree. It helps to think about everything the temple represented. The holy dwelling place of God, this sacred place for people to gather, but also the center of local human power—of political power, of economic power. The chief priests and elders are elites, and landowners, and they have all the power. The overwhelming majority of the population, especially in Galilee, would be peasants. They’re poor, with little ability to affect society or protect themselves. So the temple, the house of prayer, is now a den of robbers, of vipers, of corrupt elites. Jesus has reason to be angry. That’s his father’s house! Then, the next morning, as Jesus comes to the fig tree, we are told Jesus was hungry as well. Maybe he’s hungry for justice. Maybe he’s hungry because his people are hungry, because the orphans and widows are hungry. Maybe the writer just decided he’s hungry because he has to be for the story to make sense—why else would he get angry at a fig tree? He wants figs. But the fig tree is the elites, the political leaders, the system, the temple, and Jesus is angry because it’s not bearing fruit. Jesus’s people are hungry, and the system is not feeding them. So Jesus walks into the temple that day both angry and hungry.
A lot of people are angry today. Hungry too, and sad, perhaps. Those emotions sometimes run together for me. Sadness and anger—and maybe hunger sometimes too. People are angry about pandemic restrictions, angry that our leaders haven’t handled it better. We’re angry about the elections, sad about being alone during the pandemic. I’m sad that I can’t be with you in person and look you in the eyes, sad that I can’t hug my friends because of the coronavirus, and I’m devastated by the 200,000 lives that have been lost in the U.S. to the virus so far… Perhaps Jesus in this story was so angry, so hurt by the hurt of his people, that, for at least a moment, he wanted the temple, the whole system, to wither like the fig tree. If it’s not producing the fruit it’s meant to produce, if we come to it in want and there are nothing but leaves, what do we do with it? Have you ever been so hurt, so angry, so disappointed in something, that you just wanted to rip it out and start over?
When people look at what we’ve done to God’s creation over time and they see the natural disasters and changing global temperatures, I hurt, and I can’t blame them if they feel like they want to just tear things up, hit the reset button. When a nurse at an immigration detention facility reports that the doctors are doing shocking numbers of hysterectomies, that they’re not necessary, that the women don’t know what’s being done to them or why, I hurt, and I can’t blame people for wanting to hurt the system, to kill a fig tree, to pull it out of the ground and replace it. When a 26-year-old ER technician Breonna Taylor is shot and killed in her own home by those sworn to serve and protect us, and there are no charges for her killing, I hurt, we all hurt! And I can’t blame people for wanting to curse the system that did that, to uproot it entirely. That’s the kind of righteous anger I see motivating Jesus as he drives people out of the temple and curses the fig tree.
It feels to me like we’re in a wilderness, a desert. Like the Israelites in the story of Exodus, we are on a journey through a sometimes desolate place, and we don’t know where we’re going or how long it’s going to take to get there. Like us, like our country, the Israelites in today’s reading from Exodus are angry and hurting. But unlike Jesus, they’re not hungry, they’re thirsty. The Israelites ask for water, and Moses says “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But what were the Israelites supposed to do, keep dying of thirst quietly until something happens? Is naming our need, naming the struggles we are going through and asking for help, naming our hurts—is that testing God?
No. I think the writers of the Exodus story make clear that asking for water is not what this is about. The end of this passage summarizes it and gives us the point. “The Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’” So those Israelites look up, see the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night leading them on their way, they see the quail and the manna God has sent to feed them, and they still doubt.
Now personally, I think that’s actually very relatable. That’s so human! And in the midst of everything facing us as a community and as a nation and a world, I don’t think we can be blamed for asking, “Is the LORD among us or not?” And the good news of this story from Exodus is that God is merciful. The Israelites rage, they question Moses’s authority and they question God’s authority; they want to return to Egypt, to rip out this whole fig tree of a walk through the desert and be done with it—and what does God do? God tells Moses to strike a rock, and water comes forth from the rock. Simple as that, God sees them in their hurt and offers them comfort, survival. God loves, forgives, and takes care of God’s people. God pours out not just water but grace. If we think of God as a rock, as something hard, unchanging, we will always be surprised when water comes rushing forth. If we think we know the shape of God, what God approves or disapproves, we will never be ready when God becomes water. Water moves, it heals, it flows, it overflows, it fills.
So, is the LORD among us or not? We can ask that question, and then we can try to answer in the affirmative. Yes. We may not always recognize God at work among us, but we trust that God is there. God suffers with us, and Christ rages with us and for us against the broken things in our lives and our world, the fig trees that bear no fruit. As we hold each other through these times of chaos and pain, in our families, in our towns, in our country and world, we can do our best to trust in God and ask for mercy when we fail to trust God, mercy for the ways we have failed to do Jesus’s work, failed to live out Jesus’s righteous anger. In the words of today’s psalm we say: “Make me to know your ways, O God, teach me your paths… Be mindful of your mercy O God, and of your steadfast love… According to your steadfast love remember me.”
We trust God to listen to our cries, to bring out water for us from the most desolate of places. We trust in the words and authority of Jesus, that what we pray for in faith we receive, that through and with Christ we have the power not only to heal but to kill fig trees, to change, to uproot old systems and ways of doing things in the name of God’s justice. And we trust that the spirit of God is always moving and acting with us, before us and for us.
Picture by Ozan Safak on unsplash.com