Trees of Life: Figs & Olives

Trees of Life: Figs & Olives

Mark 11:11-25

by Daniel Harrell

National Geographic writer Victoria Pope reminds that food is more than survival. With food we make friends, court lovers, and count our blessings. “To break bread together,” a phrase as old as the Bible, captures the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter. Children make mud pies, have tea parties, trade snacks to make friends, and mimic the rituals of adults. They celebrate with sweets from the time of their first birthday, and the association of food with love will continue throughout life—and, for us who hope for eternity in Christ, long into the afterlife.

Early Christians held that sharing meals together was a preview of heaven itself. Eating with others—especially with enemies, outcasts and strangers—was proof of kingdom come. To practice hospitality as wide as the arms of Jesus was to welcome Jesus himself. In our day, hospitality can too often resort to picking up the tab at a restaurant—a generous act, but not the same as hospitality. Hosting people in your house for a meal you cooked, while old-fashioned and inconvenient, sometimes awkward and messy, is to welcome people into your life.

I’m preaching about food in the Bible this fall, but I’m also cooking it and want to eat it. Over the next few weeks I’ll whip up recipes for an ancient family meal using ancient ingredients as would have been enjoyed in Jesus’ day. You’re invited to cook the meal and eat it with others from this community—be it with your small group, a task force or a committee, or simply a dinner party you throw for the occasion, inviting perhaps a few neighbors and strangers too. Throughout Scripture, meals were a means of grace—which is why we say grace at meals. Over food we get to taste and see and hear that the Lord is good.

Last Sunday, from Exodus, we heard the Lord speak to Moses from a humble bush and promise rescue for his chosen but enslaved people in Egypt. Their ultimate reward would be an abundance of good food, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Turn to Deuteronomy and the Promised Land menu grew even more abundant. We read it would be a land “of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity… You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.” (8:7-10)

Last Sunday we tasted milk and honey—honey from our hives and a yogurt with cucumber condiment to go with dishes to come. Today we do olives and figs, Bible food that signal blessing and obedience. The Proverbs declare “the fruit of the righteous to be a tree of life,” (11:30) and Jesus likewise said you can always tell a tree by its fruit.

It’s difficult to imagine Biblical life without olive and fig trees. Olive oil was for food, but also for fuel, skin care and medicine. Olive oil ordained priests for ministry, anointed new converts as a sign of the Spirit after baptism, signaled healing and resurrection and welcomed guests. Olive trees have been cultivated for thousands of years. Travel to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and you’ll see trees that go back at least 500 of those years, some the very children and grandchildren of trees alive during Jesus’ day.

Likewise figs are among the oldest cultivated crops, predating even wheat. Throughout Scripture, God’s people are compared to fig trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce fruit that accorded with righteousness and grace. God planted his people in fine land, and gave them growth, water and light, but their produce would be theirs to produce. A righteous life had to be cultivated, like figs. Human nature being what it is, cultivation came with a caution. Again in Deuteronomy we hear: “Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the LORD your God and disobey his will and commands. For when you have become full and prosperous and have built fine homes to live in, and when your flocks and herds have become very large and your freezers full, be careful! Do not become proud and forget the LORD your God, who rescued you from slavery in Egypt” and gave you this ground (8:11-18). It is the humble whom the Lord exalts.

Another of the most common dishes on ancient, as well as modern, Middle Eastern tables is mashed chickpeas and sesame seeds mixed with citrus, garlic, salt and olive oil. Arabs and Jews called it hummus, from whence we get the word humble, meaning lowly or of the ground, from whence also we get the word human, whom Scripture speaks of being made from the ground. In one sense, to be a humble is to delight in who God made you, grounded in love. The humble acknowledge all life and love to be gift, the fruit of righteousness, the blessing of the Lord, hummus, figs and olives. “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that life will always be more delicious than it is useful.”

Still, there are those who refuse to heed caution, who have no appetite for home-cooking, who treat grace as entitlement, a fancy restaurant as superior to food made with love. Consequently, here in Mark’s gospel, Jesus ferociously cleans house. Mark employs a literacy device apropos to the sermons called the “Mark Sandwich.” Throughout his gospel, Mark sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another so to amplify the meaning of each. Here, Jesus’ Temple clearing is sandwiched by two slices of fig tree cursing. The top slice has a hungry Jesus looking for breakfast. Finding a fig tree in leaf, he also found that it had no fruit—sort of like my going to the coffee shop only to find that they’ve run out of coffee. Understandably, Jesus got irritated like humans do when we’re hungry. Except that Jesus was no mere mortal. As maker of heaven and earth in the flesh, surely he could have instantly popped some fruit from that tree. Jesus comes off as petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. To make matters worse, Mark notes that it wasn’t even fig season. Jesus was barking at the wrong tree—like yelling at your refrigerator when you forgot to buy the milk.

Of course the fig tree is figurative here.“You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said. The problem is a chronic one stretching back into the Old Testament. Like a fig tree cultivated to flower and bloom and produce fruit in accordance with righteousness and grace, God’s people instead treated grace as permission to do as they pleased. The prophet Jeremiah had stood in the same Temple courts centuries prior to convey God’s frustration. “When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no … figs on your fig tree; even your leaves are withered…” (8:13) Despite being chosen and redeemed for love and goodness, they cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied and chased after shiny idols on weekends rather than worship the Lord. But the topper was how they used the Temple system to cover their backside. They’d sin and sacrifice and sin and sacrifice, only to go out and sin some more, totally taking forgiveness for granted. Jeremiah howled on behalf of the Lord, “Will you steal and murder and cheat and lie and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (7:11)

Jesus lets loose this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. Read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” and understand how people treated the Temple. No wonder Jesus got so furious. He turned the tables on their whole sacrificial charade. (The buying and selling was not the problem since what was being bought and sold were suitable sacrifices. Worship required blemish-free animals which you could purchase on site. So Jesus’ issue was not with the Temple sacrificial system, but how it was regarded.)

Citing Isaiah, Jesus cried out how the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all the nations.” From the day it opened its doors, God’s house was meant to be home for everybody. God chose Israel, but he picked them to be an example of his grace, not sole beneficiaries. The Promised Land had become a Land of Privilege; the Temple an exclusive country club, a sanctuary from outsiders and a safe house for sin.

The bottom slice of the Mark Sandwich has Jesus and his disciples coming back to the fig-less tree now withered to its roots.“Rabbi, look!” Peter said, “The fig tree you cursed is completely dried up.” This is the moral of the parable—except that Jesus’ response seems oddly off track. “Have faith in God,” he replied. “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Now what’s he talking about? We all know we never get whatever we ask for in prayer. Forget moving mountains, what about cured diseases or fixed marriages or better jobs or behaving kids? “Have faith in God,” Jesus says, which you know when you read the fine print rarely if ever has anything to do with getting whatever you want. Faith in God entails submission and obedience, that kind of prayer Jesus prayed under his own olive tree: “Not my will, but Thine be done.” This is very difficult. It takes a lot of hummus.

But why digress about prayer anyway? Because God’s house, built as a house of prayer for all nations, had been made a den of robbers. And like the dead fig tree, the Temple was doomed. The Lord would leave it to suffer its apocalyptic ruin; in effect giving his people just what they wanted. Note that Jesus did not say faith in God can move any mountain, but specifically this mountain, which for the disciples hearing Jesus say it in the shadow of the withered fig tree would have been the Temple mountain. Within 40 years, Rome would crush the Temple flat, just like the Babylonians crushed it back in Jeremiah.

So what about Jesus’ last line, then? “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Assuming the disciples had put tree and Temple together, they might have equated moving mountains with exacting vengeance. Why take out a tree when you can take down a Pharisee, obliterate an obnoxious neighbor, wither your conniving ex-spouse or the boss who just laid you off? The human heart craves vengeance when hurt. Concerned, perhaps, that his own volatile actions against Temple misuse would be interpreted as condoning vigilante violence, Jesus quickly added his caveat: “Whenever you pray for what you want, pray to forgive.”

This was a remarkable concession. Jesus kills a tree to forebode the end of relationship between God and recalcitrant sinners, then prays to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and extend grace again? It sounds so odd until you remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. His body was God’s house, the dwelling place of the Lord. And like God’s house, his body would be destroyed. The curse Jesus hung on the fig tree and Temple was finally the curse hung on him. In the ultimate act of truly acceptable sacrifice, Jesus finally cleared the way for everyone to come in and feast at the table of the Lord.

Basic Hummus

Makes about 2 cups


1/2  cup dried chickpeas

2     quarts water

1/8  teaspoon baking soda

3     tablespoons juice from 1 to 2 lemons

6      tablespoons tahini, stirred well (Tahini is roasted sesame seed butter. I like East Wind)

2     tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

2-3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press

1     teaspoon salt

1/2 white pepper

paprika to taste


1. Pick through and rinse chickpeas. Place beans in large bowl, cover with 1 quart water, and soak overnight. The next day, drain and add beans and baking soda to large saucepan and stir over high heat for about three minutes. Add 1 quart water and boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, 20 minutes to 40 minutes. The beans should offer little resistance when pinched, but not be mushy. Drain and cool.

2. Add beans to food processor and process until a stiff paste forms. Add 1/4 cup water, lemon juice, garlic, tahini, salt and pepper. Process until smooth and then add olive oil through feed tube on top of processor. Taste for seasoning and texture and adjust.

3. Transfer hummus to serving bowl, sprinkle with paprika and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand until flavors meld, at least 30 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil and serve at room temperature.


Fig Cakes (Dessert)


cup dried figs, stemmed

1     tablespoon toasted pine nuts

teaspoons honey

1     pinch of salt


1. Place all ingredients in food processor and process until well chopped, stopping from time to time to scrape down sides and blade.

2. Shape into cakes and wrap in plastic. Spend the next hour cleaning your food processor.


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