Saturday, April 15, 2017
SHOW and SUBSTANCE-by Linden Malki
One of the puzzling incidents in Jesus' ministry was the "cursing of the fig tree" on the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which had included his driving out the merchants and moneylenders in the Temple courtyards. (Mark 11, Matthew 21). His disciples were surprised that he had expected figs at this time of year, and took what they saw as his disappointment out on the tree. In his message last Sunday, Dougie pointed out that what Jesus was condemning was not as much this particular tree, but the fruitlessness of people. Fig trees produce an early crop of smaller fruits, followed by the growth of leaves and then a later main crop, so there is a period in late spring and summer where the trees have leaves but no fruit, so as a species they can be used as a parable of show without substance.
The religious culture of Jerusalem at that historical time included four major subcultures, all with a commitment to what they saw as God's requirements, but mutually hateful and judgmental. Jesus had said that they had all lost the point of their heritage, some worse than others, and they were not producing the fruit of God's love that they were called to. The Temple establishment, including the high priests, were mostly descendants of Zadok, the high priest at the time of David and Solomon. These Sadducees, as they were known, had as their main concern the Temple worship and sacrifices; they followed the written law from Moses, but didn't believe in the authenticity of the traditions passed down by word of mouth. They also had a deal with Rome; they guaranteed civil peace in return for Roman support of their religious power; and they were admirers of the Greek & Roman culture. They also used the sacrificial system to line their own pockets--the only sacrificial animals they would allow to be used in the Temple were the ones they raised and sold to worshippers, and only in Jewish shekels--and they controlled the money-changers. Their reaction to the public reaction to the raising of Lazarus was that Jesus was a threat to their tightly balanced deal with Rome (John 11), and the incident in the Temple was the last straw.
The other religious party were mostly ordinary people who were committed to studying and teaching not only the written law, but the Oral Law that they claimed had been transmitted in parallel. They also had no tolerance for those who did not observe all the laws, be they pagans or other Jews. They were known as Pharisees, derived from a Hebrew word for "separate". They produced major scholars, and were the backbone of the synagogues, communities of Jewish men who met regularly for prayer and study. These communities had grown up in Babylon during the captivity around scholars who worked to preserve the Jewish tradition among the exiles. We have many stories of Jesus' discussions with the Pharisees; they were concerned with everyday life as an observer of the Laws, but tended to see the law as an end in itself. Many of them were totally judgmental of Jesus and his teaching, but there were those who understood and became Jesus followers.
The other two parties were the Essenes and related groups who withdrew from the mainstream to observe the law even more strictly, and the Zealots who were political revolutionaries whose aim was to destroy the Roman occupation and all man-made political authority, expecting this to lead to direct government by God. They are the ones who triggered the insurrection that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 65-70 AD. The Sadducees and priests disappeared when the Temple was destroyed; the Pharisees became the core of the rabbinical Judaism that has survived to this day. As the church downplayed legalism, the rabbis developed it even further.
Showy leaves without fruit are useless; how often do we in today's churches put on a big show of our own in worship and rules without the fruits of love that Jesus preached?