SIGNS OF LIFE
Photo source: pixabay.com
I was looking at what Jesus did and said in the first days of Holy Week – what was on his mind and how was he feeling? I was also randomly wondering why giving and receiving flowers is so important to us – what is the gift of flowers a sign of?
I noticed that strange incident where Jesus curses a fig tree when he is travelling in to Jerusalem from where he is staying in Bethany. In Matthew’s gospel, the writer says Jesus is hungry, the tree is full of leaves, but Jesus doesn’t find any fruit on it and he curses it. The tree immediately withers, and his disciples are amazed.
Many of us are amazed when we read this – usually on behalf of the tree. Was Jesus that bad tempered? Was the tree that naughty? He eats with tax collectors and sinners but curses a fig tree – it seems so out of character and the tree becomes a victim in our moral universe.
Trees in the bible are often a sign of God’s people, Israel, and the way they either flourish or fall depends on how merciful, just and humble they are. Jesus spent the day before seeing how corrupt the Temple – and therefore God’s people – had become. He had to clear it out so that the young and old, the ill and infirm could have access to him and the healing of God’s Kingdom. The temple was an amazing structure – the disciples commented on how good it looked – but on the inside it was rotten and unfruitful.
So, Jesus was not unleashing his frustration on a poor plant; he was making a prophetic statement. In Mark’s gospel he is described as looking for fruit because he was hungry. Seeing at a distance the tree looked healthy, on closer inspection he could find nothing on it. People are hungry for truth, love, compassion, reassurance and hope. You would want them to find this in God’s family. We may look good on the outside, but it is our fruit that is important not our gifts, abilities or even success.
So, Jesus destroyed the old ways, and in the process - as a representation of Adam, Israel, the Kings, Priests and the Temple - was destroyed himself. He didn’t distance himself from the temple or even the fig tree – he ended up aligning himself with all that had failed, all that didn’t come good on its promise, all that had gone bad - and took the responsibility for it on himself. He is cursed like the fig tree. He is whipped like the money changing tables in the temple. He withers and dies.
Then he comes back to life.
So, I can only presume that the fig tree also came back to life the following week. (There’s no evidence for that, it’s just my understanding of where this acted our parable would go, as well as my ongoing sympathy for and championing of the tree…)
Why do we send flowers? Because they are signs of life. They look good and smell good. They represent for us the immediacy of flourishing. We are hungry for life and we want to gaze on life, too. When flowers wither and die, we are disappointed. When we see cherry blossom and daffodils now in bloom we are elated – like Jesus was. These signs of life lead us to expecting and hoping for more – especially in our emotional, soul and spirit life. Flowers come to us when we are sad or grieving, when we have succeeded, when we are loved specially. They are signs of faith and hope and, if our eyes of open, point to a Creator and Redeemer who wants to satisfy our longing with the richest of fare.
Look for signs of life this Easter. Don’t be mis-lead by lots of good looking leaves. Know that Jesus took that curse on himself so that you don’t need to live under it. Give some flowers to someone, or at least pick some and have them to look at this weekend.
Martin J. Young