Why would anyone curse a tree to death? – Mark 11:12-14, 20-26

I have two fig trees in my back yard, so I’ve been learning all I can about them. Last year, the trees produced enough fruit to share with bugs, butterflies, and birds and still have way more than I could eat,

image of blue butterfly on fig leaf
Caption: Butterfly on fig tree

 

so I did what my grandmother did – made preserves.

Here is part of one peck I picked. No picture of preserves available yet.

image of figs on table

Early in the summer, I could see the figs forming, but they were green. I started looking around the middle of June for ripe figs, maybe even earlier. I couldn’t remember when the season started. Day after day, the figs were still green.

image of green figs
Caption: Should I kill the tree?

And each time, I couldn’t help remembering the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree.

It would never occur to me – or anyone I could imagine – to curse a tree for not bearing fruit out of season. Yet the Gospels preserve a story of Jesus doing just that (Cf. Matthew 21:18-22).

The season is about over now. The leaves are starting to fall. That’s what fig trees do. They go through the same seasons each year. Jesus knows this.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28, ESV).

The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:28).

To everything there is a season

He knows the cycles grain and trees go through. He knows about seed time and harvest. You can’t pick fresh figs any time of year. It happens in its own time and in its own season. So how can he get mad at a fig tree when it’s not the season for figs (Mark 11:13)? It’s idiotic to get mad at a tree for any reason, and especially for following the same seasons it does every year. If I got mad at my trees because it’s September and the leaves are starting to fall, you’d think I was insane. And you’d be right.

Maybe a little disappointment is understandable. Maybe he just had a hankering for figs at the moment, saw the leaves on the tree, and thought he’d check just in case a few ripened a little early. No figs. Oh well. He should keep moving before anyone sees he doesn’t know the season of figs in this territory like every other Jew who has ever been to Jerusalem for the three major festivals, right?

No, he curses the fig tree so that it withers and dies, dried up at the root (Mark 11:14, 20). It looks not only stupid but mean-spirited in narcissistic fashion. I don’t care what season it is. You’re a fig tree, and I want figs now.

This is another example of why you can’t read everything in the Bible literally. It is a story that is obviously meant to be read symbolically.

It’s a very common theme in the Old Testament. A gardener plants a tree (or vine) in a garden, cares for it, removes weeds, protects it from wild animals, basically does everything you can to keep the tree healthy so that it will bear fruit. When it’s time for the harvest, there is either no fruit or the fruit is rotten. This is a metaphor the Bible uses repeatedly to say the religious and national institutions have become corrupt, and God is about to pass judgment on them .

The Markan Sandwich

Mark connects this story with another in one of his “sandwiches.” This is when he starts one story, interrupts it with another narrative, and then finishes the first story. The story that interrupts this one is The Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19), when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and calls out the corruption of the priests. Matthew presents these stories as separate events (21:12-13, 18-22), but Mark deliberately links them together to show the meaning of both these actions is one and the same.

Jesus sees a tree with no fruit and causes it to wither and die from the inside out, indicating God’s judgment on the Temple as an institution. Even though this is not the explanation Jesus gives (11:21-26), no Jew in Jerusalem could have missed the symbolism. Here are a few more examples.

The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).

Beware of the false prophets…Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:15a, 18-19).

In these two passages, both Jesus and John the Baptist draw upon on Old Testament symbol of good figs representing the good people and bad figs representing the bad people (Jeremiah 24:1-8; Hosea 9:10).

Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree

Figs were often named with other crops, especially grapes, as a symbol of security and abundance, of the entire promised land being blessed and no one lacking anything. When the fig tree and the grapevine bore good fruit, all the people lived in shalom.

And He will judge between many peoples and render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken (Micah 4:3-4).

So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon (1 Kings 4:25).

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)

Shaken and Rotten figs

So when fig tree and the vine bore no fruit, or the figs fell because the tree was shaken, troubled times were ahead.

…thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine and pestilence, and I will make them like split-open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness” (Jeremiah 29:17).

The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; The pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men (Joel 1:12).

“I will surely snatch them away,” declares the LORD; “There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away” (Jeremiah 8:13)

They will devour your harvest and your food; They will devour your sons and your daughters; They will devour your flocks and your herds; They will devour your vines and your fig trees; They will demolish with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust (Jeremiah 5:17).

All your fortifications are fig trees ripe with ripe fruit – When [the trees are] shaken, the [figs] fall into the eater’s mouth (Nahum 3:12).

The author of Revelation draws upon this as well.

And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind (Revelation 6:13, KJV).

The Temple is a house built on sand

So this is not about vindictiveness toward a tree. Just as he did when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus is taking on the role of a prophet pronouncing God’s judgment on the religious institutions. And troubled times were coming. They are within a generation of a rebellion against Rome that would end with the complete destruction of the Temple. The rebels were not yet born, but the social and political forces were already at work, the same forces exposed in the trial of Jesus. And this fact was uncovered recently: The Emperor Vespasian used the gold, silver, and bronze from the Temple to pay for the construction of the Colosseum.

What was happening in the Temple, in the priesthood, and in the religious life of Judea that made Jesus so angry? Usually when the prophets pronounce God’s judgment in the most dire terms, they are condemning some kind of systemic injustice. Corruption has become so entrenched in the system that the only remedy left is to destroy the institution completely and hope that in the ashes the institutions can be recreated. Hopefully this time, if we start again from scratch, these institutions that are supposed to uphold justice and righteousness for everyone will get it right.

As I write this, I feel afraid. When some people read in the Bible about God’s harshest judgments, they feel justified in dehumanizing certain people. They think God hates all the same people they hate. I know because I used to be one of them. Still a recovering Fundamentalist. I don’t want to stir up those kind of misguided feelings, but in order to get at the meaning of this passage, we need to understand this kind of prophetic tradition Jesus was part of. I have a few ideas that I will discuss in a later post.

What Does Autism Feel Like?

If you’re trying to understand Autism, this is a good place to start.

Anonymously Autistic

I was having a deep conversation (via Google Hangouts instant messenger) with a close friend about my Autism. He made a comment that he did not see Autism as a disability, but more as an alternate way of thinking that is not serviced very wall by the modern education system. I agree – partially. . .

Quickly I realized that no matter how hard I tried, there was no way I could accurately explain or convey the parts of my Autism that truly “disable” me. Searching the internet, I quickly found a few articles with other Aspie who had attempted to explain what I currently could not – the negative things that NT’s have a hard time comprehending.

“What does Autism feel like?” In that moment I was completely unable to explain.

The most disabling part of Autism (for me) may be its invisibility and my status as “high functioning”…

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Believing in the God of eternal conscious love

The debate over hell has been renewed over the past decade in the Evangelical world due at least partially to celebrity pastor Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, in which he makes a compelling case …

Source: Believing in the God of eternal conscious love

Tribute to Tolstoy

Have to admit I haven’t read Tolstoy, but there is no doubt he had made a huge impact on the literary world and beyond.

Cafe Book Bean

imagesBorn today September 9th 1828
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
(Usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy) was a Russian aristocrat and one of the world’s most preeminent writers. Tolstoy become famous through his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

“We can know only that we know nothing.
And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” (
War and Peace)


Tolstoy’s fictional work includes: dozens of short stories and several novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. He also wrote plays and numerous philosophical essays.


“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (
Anna Karenina)

Towards the end of his life, Leo Tolstoy became increasingly interested in a version of pacifist Christianity with support for a strand of anarchist Communism. His exposition of pacifism and non-violence had a profound influence…

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Depressed Christian, Part 2: Searching for help

The Internet has a lot of good information, and a lot of bad. If you are a Christian struggling with depression, you might want to search on the Internet for helpful information. You want something that not only helps with depression but addresses the extra dimensions that Christian faith adds to it. For example, I came across one person who said when a psychiatrist told him he would need medication, he felt “like a failure.”

I know what he meant. He felt like a failure because, for Christians, it’s so easy to get the idea that you shouldn’t need help for depression beyond talking to someone, praying, living a faithful life, and obeying the Word. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13), so Jesus and faith in Him should be all you need. That might be what you’re telling yourself, and it might be what your church tells you and what you hear from preachers on TV. But you’ve done all that, and you’re still depressed. It must be your fault, right? Wrong. The causes of depression are not just spiritual, and they are not a failure of faith. You need to address more than just spiritual issues. You need to understand there are physical and psychological reasons for depression. And most of all, you need to arm yourself with accurate knowledge so you know how to find the right kind of help.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

To see what’s out there, I searched “depressed christian” on Pchsearch. (Google isn’t offering the chance to win $5000/week for life. Who knows? I might win. And, as unchristian as it might sound, I think some financial security would help my depression to some degree. I’ll probably need to say more about that another time).

As usual with the Internet, the results were relevant but very unequal in quality. They ranged from wonderfully helpful to downright awful, with varying degrees in between. I have ranked my first page results using the customary 5-Star scale, and included notes below about the reasons for the ranking. This is just a first step. The goal here is to help you separate good information from bad.

The articles with a 5-Star rating meet these 4 criteria:

  1. The author has experience helping people with depression, either professionally or personally, and uses sound research.
  2. The author understands the unique ways a person’s Christian faith affects their experience of depression – how it can either help or hinder recovery.
  3. The author addresses physiological causes of depression. Religious people will always recognize spiritual causes. That’s part of the equation, but just as with physical illness, you cannot properly treat it if you don’t acknowledge the physical causes.
  4. The author clearly distinguishes between Clinical/Major Depression (and similar types that are caused by deficiencies or imbalances in brain chemistry) and what I will call “situational depression,” a normal (and often healthy) response of sadness and grief due to some tragic life event or loss.

And of course, the scale goes down from there. Drum roll please…

Setting the Bar for everyone

Brandon W. Peach. (2014, February 20). 5 Things Christians Should Know about Depression and Anxiety. Relevant Magazine.


Not only meets the standards I laid out but also does a great job in identifying the most common pitfalls for people seeking help from the church – and the pitfalls of a well-meaning but ill-informed church giving “help.”

 

Mark Mounts. (n.d.). It Can’t Be Depression. I’m a Christian. Grace Commission International.


If you felt shame or failure over depression because you are a Christian and think Jesus should be all you need, imagine how that is magnified if you are a pastor or priest. That was this author’s situation.

Includes a Sidebar with the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of a “major depressive episode.” This part is a little technical, so here are some terms you might need help with:

  • Psychomotor agitation = purposeless, intense restlessness brought on by mental tension
  • Psychomotor retardation = slowing down of thought and action, most commonly seen in major depression or bipolar disorder.

Good

Author unknown. (n.d.). Christians: Take Depression Seriously. Beliefnet.


The colon is very important in this title. With the colon, it’s an imperative, as in, “Hey Christians! Take depression seriously!” Without it, you have “Christians take depression seriously” as if it’s a statement of fact. Unfortunately, not all Christians take depression seriously.

As the article says, “Those who try to dissuade religious people from getting medical help for clinical depression, claiming that faith alone is the cure, can do devastating harm.”

I’m giving it four stars instead of five because 1) It talks about situational depression vs. clinical depression, but does not distinguish them as clearly as the two five-star articles, and 2) This sentence is confusing: “Psychoanalysis can dig out of the subconscious such ugly realities so that they can be dealt with the effects negated.”
…so they can be dealt with the effects negated. What is dealt with? What is negated? Are the effects dealt with or negated? This is why grammar and proofreading matter.

Still, though, the information is good. The author uses real life and Biblical examples that illustrate vividly just how important it is to take depression seriously and get proper treatment.

 

Karen Morgan. (2004). Depression in the Christian Family: (Part 4 of 5 in Depression series). Focus on the Family.


Both this article and the series have very good advice. I would have given it five stars except it comes from Focus on the Family. I have heard James Dobson, the ministry’s founder, tell parents to reject their LGBTQ children until they agree to live “according to the Word of God.”

This is exactly the kind of rejection that causes LGBTQ teenagers as a group to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than their straight peers. Therefore, I cannot recommend this without a caveat of saying if you are LGBTQ, then aside from this article and series, stay away from Focus on the Family and Dr. Dobson.

However, if you can separate out that baggage and judge the article on its own merits, it’s worth reading. It tells the story of Earle and his experience with severe depression that led him to seek counseling, medication, and even go on disability for a few months. He describes the issues honestly and in a way a depressed Christian will understand.

Another reason I like this article is indicated in the title. Earle’s depression affected his entire family. And that’s something many people don’t think about. Depression doesn’t just affect the depressed person. It causes you to behave in ways that people around you don’t know how to handle, no matter how much they love you. Hopefully, realizing that will prompt you to get the help you need.

 

Stephanie Husk, M.S.W. (2013, April 11) Do Real Christians Get Depressed? Crosswalk.


First impression, I gave it three stars. However, as I’ve looked over it again, I decided to upgrade it to four. For the most part, there is good advice here – for situational depression, and Clinical Depression as well. It might appear to point to sin, i.e., personal failure, as the cause of depression, but it’s actually more nuanced than that. Take this statement for example (I bolded some parts to make the meaning clearer):

  • “…problems in our brain’s chemistry or in our body’s functions are ultimately a spiritual problem…since all of creation is affected by sin. However, this does not mean that the depression is necessarily a result of individual spiritual shortcomings. It also does not mean that a person shouldn’t seek out healthy relief wherever it may be found. Every good and perfect gift comes from above. Solutions to prolonged depression are no less spiritual if they come in the form of changed diet, exercise, cognitive counseling, or medication.”

The “sin” talked about here should probably have a capital S, because it is much bigger than your or anyone else’s individual sins. It is much bigger than social sins of a community, institution, or nation. It is even bigger than the sin of all humanity, as in “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It is a condition of brokenness, decay, and mortality that afflicts not only humanity but all of creation (Rom. 8:22-23). In this sense, I think it is healthy to acknowledge Sin (with a capital S) as a cause of depression. But I reject any preaching that says you are depressed because you are not “obeying the Word,” you are not praying enough, you don’t have enough faith, or anything along those lines. When you have Clinical Depression, the primary cause is physical, not spiritual.

Fair

Various. (n.d.). How to Cope with Depression as a Christian. Wikihow.


It gives seven steps to cope with depression. Most of the advice is good, though the style makes for awkward reading. Also, some of the “related articles” are not what I ascribe to. Particularly, one says “How to convert a Muslim to Christianity.” My experience of engaging religion and spirituality with a clinically depressed mind is almost exclusively Christian. How Depression affects the experience of Islam, Judaism, or any other religion is something I’d like to address at some point, with people who are more qualified than me.

Now if a Muslim is interested in what being a Christian means to me, I’m happy to share it. And if anything about my experience helps them with depression, to God be the glory. But I know how I would feel if someone said to me, “You must convert to Islam in order to be saved,” or, “Only Muhammad can heal your depression.” I won’t be the one who does that to someone whose faith is different from mine.

 

Various. (n.d.). What Does the Bible Say about Depression? How Can Christians Overcome Depression? Got Questions?


Distinguishes between situational and clinical depression, which is very important. The description of clinical depression is pretty good, but it needs some editing. As in the following with my comments in parentheses.

  • “It may not be caused by unfortunate life circumstances…” (Change may not to is not. We are talking about clinical depression now, not situational),
  • “…nor can the symptoms be alleviated by one’s own will (True. A five-star statement).
  • “Contrary to what some in the Christian community believe, clinical depression is not always caused by sin (Delete always. Clinical depression by definition means the cause is physiological, not spiritual).
  • “They should make sure that they are staying in the Word, even when they do not feel like it. Emotions can lead us astray, but God’s Word stands firm and unchanging (This is an example where, yes it’s true, but it’s important to put it in the right context. And I have to ask, what do you mean be staying in the Word? That can mean different things to different people).
  • “Although being depressed is not a sin, one is still accountable for the response to the affliction, including getting the professional help that is needed (stress the last part of this sentence. Without that, I would reject this advice. For someone in major depression, you
    are accountable for your response is like you should have more faith – whatever that means. The thing to understand if your depression is as bad as Earle (see “Christian Family” article above) is you are accountable in as much as you cannot get out of this darkness on your own, but you can and must get professional help).

One statement was dead on, though. “However, in some cases, seeing a doctor for depression is no different than seeing a doctor for an injury”

Amen and amen! If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this. Seeing a doctor [or psychiatrist or therapist] for depression is no different than seeing a doctor for an injury.

 

Various. (n.d.).  Christian Testimonies about Depression and Suicide. About.com, Christianity.


47 stories of people who found peace to “overcome” depression. Why the quotes? I am always skeptical when people say they are cured or have overcome depression, as if Depression has been banished to the Outer Darkness, wailing and gnashing its teeth, never to return. If so, it probably wasn’t Clinical Depression but situational. They don’t give specifics about how they were cured beyond “Jesus is the answer.”

There was a time when I would have given this five stars. “Jesus is the answer,” I would say as the solution to any problem. Well, that didn’t always work for me, so how can I expect it to work for Muslims, Jews, or even all Christians? I can’t promote that or anything as the one and only answer for depression anymore.

But the stories might give hope to some people.

Bad

Various. (1996, 1999). What Should a Christian Do if Overwhelmed with Depression? Christian Answers.


Although it does acknowledge some kinds of depression are caused by chemical imbalances and may require medication and/or professional help, it puts the stress on spiritual causes: sin, not following the Word, not believing the Bible, etc.

It says, “Aim to work on the causes of your depression, not just the symptoms,” which is what I advocate as well. But working on the real causes requires professional help, not a few Bible verses and a sermon.

Super-Bad

Author unknown. (n.d.). Overcoming Depression. CBN.


Causes named: Physical (not taking care of yourself, illness, medication), Losses and other hurts, Sin.

Not one mention of clinical, bipolar, or any form of depression which is primarily caused by chemical imbalances. Here are some examples that show why:

  • “The Bible says that Jesus ‘bore our griefs’ on the cross (Isaiah 53:4 NAS). He feels our pain as strongly as we do and will carry it for us. Give your hurt to Him. (As in the article above, this can be helpful in the right context. But what do you do next? His answer is…).
  • “Then resolve not to dwell on it again.” (The worst thing to say to someone with Clinical Depression! Right up there with, Stop sinning. Snap out of it. Pray the depression away. All the answers are in the Bible. You’ve got to have more faith.)

Faith, prayer, and Bible study can all be powerful tools in recovery. They are often enough to get over situational depression (though even then not always). But if you are Christian and seeking help for Clinical Depression, I know you’ve already done these things, and they were not enough. And most importantly, it is not your fault that they weren’t enough. Refer to Earle’s story above in the “Christian Family” article.

Downright Awful

Melissa Barnhart. (2013, April 11). Christian Counselor: Depression Demands Living by Faith, Not by Sight. The Christian Post.



Author named is not the professional referred to. Subject of the article is the “professional” who gives this advice. At first I gave the article one star, but then I realized it does not even deserve that, because it comes from a licensed professional. So what is the opposite of a star? A black hole (which happens to be shaped like a Zero).

All about “spiritual causes” of depression, not a word about the physiological causes. Christian or not, a licensed neuropsychologist really should know better.

*****

So that is a sampling of the advice that is out there. As I said above, the intention with this article is to help you separate good sources of information from bad. Some of the “bad” advice can be true and helpful in the right context, as I alluded to a couple of times. What is the right context? That is something I hope to address in future posts. In general, it goes back to the criteria I named above. If you have a type of depression that has physiological causes, you need more than a “spiritual” answer. Just like if I break my arm, I will pray. But I will also get to a doctor as soon as I can.

In coping with depression, I used and still use spiritual sources of comfort. However, I did not get better until I was properly diagnosed and able to address the physical causes as well as the spiritual. That is why I am so adamant about not reducing everything down to “sin” or “lack of faith.” If that messes with your theology, I’m sorry. But I know what kind of religion/faith/spirituality (whatever you want to call it) helped me, and what kind made everything worse. And to paraphrase Paul, I will not submit again to bad faith just to accommodate your dogma.

Related Articles

Roots of Depression, Part 1

Roots of Depression, Part 2

Depressed Christian, Part 1

Reblogs

What is Depression?.

How Christians Think about Mental Illness Needs to Change.

Diet & Exercise

Meditation.