The gospel reading for Morning Prayer yesterday was that little passage from Mark 11 where Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no figs, even though it was not the season for figs. His disciples passed the tree later in the day and saw that it had withered and died, and, being a bit curious asked Jesus about it. I’ve wondered about that episode. It seems so out of character for Jesus. The tree was just being a tree. Figs were not in season. Why would Jesus curse it to death in what looks like a rather childish fit of pique?
I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to notice, but instead of explaining the fig tree to his disciples, Jesus talked more about the nature of prayer and it’s power, and Mark ended the passage with these words: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (RSV) Consider that the innocent fig tree was an object lesson pointing to our thoughts, words and even prayers that condemn and damn rather than forgive and bless.
How often have we heard, or perhaps said, words of damnation in God’s holy name? How often have our thoughts of getting even, taking vengeance, taken on the form of prayer? Do we think they just bounce off the ionosphere and fall back as harmless syllables? It’s not that I think God hears our prayers of damnation or vengeance and gives us our desire. Not at all. But those thoughts and words do have the power to kill, if not our intended victim then us, slowly at first, but like a cancerous parasite deep inside, killing bit by bit until there is nothing left.
Late in the afternoon I was on the beach near a man who brought the whole thing home. He was on the phone and cursing whoever was on the other end with his heartfelt enraged desire that they be goddamned. His grandchildren and adult kids showed up after a while, and his behavior toward them became a combination of affection, overly harsh kidding, and bursts of cursing. Now it may be that he was rightfully anxious about some difficulty in his life, but I wonder if a lifetime of curses has effectively killed whatever budding figs may have been growing on his tree. As the psalmist said, “He put on cursing like garment, let it soak into his body like water, and into his bones like oil.” (The psalmist was on pretty thin ice himself, don’t you think?)
I don’t think that’s an extreme example. Think about it; it’s a fairly common one. But how often do we do the same, maybe not just that way, maybe in smaller thoughts and words that still mean the same? Maybe that’s why Jesus said that we should pray that we be forgiven our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Maybe that’s why Jesus was so insistent that we learn to love our enemies, that we bless and not curse. This is not about bad language; it’s about the power of evil that lies within that language just as much as the power of God’s love lies within the language of forgiveness and blessing.