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Homily for May 28, 2021 – Friday the 8th Week in Ordinary Time

Fr. Stephen Muller, OCSO

Si 44:1, 9-13, Mk 11:11-26

In Mark 2:23ff we are told the story of Jesus’ disciples picking grain on the Sabbath and the Pharisees objecting. It begins with this verse: “As he was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath, his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.” The pericope ends with the punchline, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” I guess I’m left wondering about the poor farmer. He put a lot of work into plowing that field, clearing it of stones, planting and weeding it, etc. He owns the field; maybe he’s still making payments on it. He probably needs that income to support his family. In my mind, he’s the one who should reap the benefits of the harvest. If others want to eat some of the produce, they should pay him for it. It seems unjust for others to come along and eat his crop. Not only that; if they’re walking through it, they’re trampling a lot of it down. Remember, it says, “His disciples began to make a path . . .” It seems inconsiderate. Why didn’t they just walk around the field and leave it alone? And how many disciples were there at this point? Sometimes Jesus drew crowds in the thousands. Even if it wasn’t a large group, if they set the example and others followed in the days afterward, the farmer wouldn’t have much left to bring in for his own needs. And remember, grain fields back then were waaaaay smaller than they are these days.

I feel like a similar thing is happening in today’s gospel. The chances are high that that fig tree belonged to someone. Jerusalem was a highly populated place and all the surrounding land was spoken for. Figs were a very useful food because they could be dried and eaten all year long, or taken on a journey, etc. We have to keep in mind that they didn’t have refrigerators back then or freezers or supermarkets like we have now. If all pilgrims to Jerusalem ate from the neighboring trees it would seriously cut into the amount the owner was able to harvest for himself. Not only did Jesus try to take figs that were not his, but he also ended up killing the tree. It just doesn’t seem fair to the owner.

It also doesn’t seem fair to the tree that Jesus cursed and killed it. Mark says that it was not the time for figs. I find that a very honest admission. He was not trying to whitewash his hero’s actions. The gospels are not doctored propaganda. However, the Matthean parallel to this scene leaves that bit of information out. This would seem to point to Matthew relying on Mark instead of Mark relying on Matthew. In biblical scholarship, there is the principle that when comparing two parallel passages, the harder or more difficult one is usually the older.

The New American Bible I use has this footnote for this passage: “Cursing the fig tree is a parable in action representing Jesus’ judgment on barren Israel and the fate of Jerusalem for failing to receive his teaching.” I don’t find this explanation very satisfying, though. If you’re going to use a fig tree as an example, choose one that is at fault. This fig tree did nothing wrong. It was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Certainly, if that was Jesus’ intention he would have chosen a fig tree that actually was barren and would have done it during the season for figs.

Maybe Jesus was just having a cranky morning. It said he was hungry. Maybe his blood sugar was low and he was feeling irritable. A little while later when he arrived at the Temple he knocked over the money changers’ tables and kicked all the animals out. That was probably the strongest reported episode of Jesus’ anger, although, in that case, it was justified. But back to the fig tree, if we allow Jesus to be completely human it seems like we shouldn’t be shocked if he has a moment of anger and flips out on an innocent fig tree. In other places, he was certainly able to voice his impatience with the obtuseness of his disciples. I, personally, find the raw humanness of Jesus very appealing and even comforting when I get discouraged by my own humanness. If Jesus felt anxiety and dread in the garden of Gethsemani it makes me feel all that much closer to him. He really did experience our human condition to the full. He wasn’t play-acting.

Shouldn’t Jesus have known that it wasn’t the time for figs? He grew up in that area, right? We’re not used to fig trees around here but when I grew up in California we had one out by the barn and chicken house. I used to climb up in the branches and eat the delicious, soft, completely ripe fruit. We would also pick them for our home use and my mother would make jam. My arms would get very itchy from the leaves. I can’t imagine Adam and Eve wearing those darn things.

So what can we take away from all this? Maybe as we read in Ephesians 4:26: “Be angry but do not sin.” Also, respect other people’s property. Do to others whatever you would have them do to you (Mt 7:12). If you wouldn’t want your crop damaged, don’t damage someone else’s.