Anyone alive in the 90’s and early 2000’s (which I was), is familiar with the television show “Friends.” It tells the story of a unique group of six twenty-somethings in New York City, who find themselves deeply embedded and engrossed in one another’s lives – through every up and down, and twist and turn. As is the case with basically every successful sitcom, there are multiple on again off again relationships, fashion and hairstyle trends, those who find love in the strangest ways and places, the character who is only there for comic relief, and even the one who everybody feels like they know. Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey, weren’t just friends on Thursday nights at 7pm central, they were all our friends too.
There’s one episode that aired around Christmas time in which Phoebe, (an eclectic hippie masseuse who grew up in a strange family and even lived out of her car for a while) takes umbrage with Joey (a fun loving doofus-like aspiring actor living off his good looks and other people’s money until he hits it big) going to his new seasonal job at the city’s local Christmas tree distribution center. She asks him how he can sleep at night, knowing that his business supports the heartless murder of trees literally cut down in their prime. He explains to her that she has it all wrong, and these trees are “born to be Christmas trees” and they are simply “fulfilling their Christmas destiny.” She eventually relents, and pays him a visit at work that night. Everything seems to be going great, until one of Joey’s co-workers brings an old dying tree to the back, and runs it through the chipper. As you can imagine, the scene ends with Phoebe melting down and uttering shrill screams at the top of her lungs, as Joey looks on helplessly. A humorous, if not predictable moment, from a memorable classic.
There’s a moment from the records of Holy Week that is comparable if not completely similar to this made for tv moment, where Jesus and His disciples have a rather strange interaction with a tree of a different kind. The Gospel of Mark records it like this;
Mark 11:12–14 (ESV)
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
An odd thing for Jesus to do for sure. Yes, he has been stressed recently, showing strong emotion at Lazarus’ grave, and completely losing it while at the Temple just yesterday – but yelling at, and the cursing of a tree? This was a new level, even for Him.
I can imagine the disciples tried to laugh it off awkwardly, secretly making eyes at one another or whispering and questioning when they thought that Jesus couldn’t hear. What was He doing? Why had He lost it? Was He going crazy? Did they need to be worried? Was there something bigger going on they should be aware of? Actually, there was.
Mark lets us know that the strange interaction with the fig tree wasn’t over that same day;
Mark 11:20–25 (ESV)
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Jesus, per usual had had a method to His seemed madness. He knew that in just mere days, everything in the lives of His disciples was about to change. Their faith would be tested in ways that they never would’ve dreamed of, and eventually, they would be charged with starting the most important religious movement in the History of the world. Against all odds, political powers, and at the risk and eventual loss of their lives, they would singlehandedly be God’s plan for drawing the world back to Himself and causing His sacrificial death to “bear fruit” through the salvation of those who came to accept Jesus as Savior. He knew that strong, unwavering faith – and powerful prayer – would be the linchpin of this new way of life – and so He gave them a moment by which to remember this by.
The Bible is full of strange and challenging stories. Jesus himself tells parables, many of which are incredibly challenging to understand at first blush. So it shouldn’t be a HUGE surprise throughout the most important week of His life (and probably all of human history), Jesus goes some weird stuff and does and says some unique things. Perhaps the most peculiar is the cursing of the fig tree – but not just because of all that happened. What seemed to be just another angry outburst – a stressed teacher and leader being overcome with emotion – turned out to be an incredibly important illustration for all those who would follow in His footsteps. Expectant prayer and deep seated belief – the backbone to a faith that would alter the future forever. And it all started with one solitary tree, that was simply fulfilling its Holy Week destiny.