A Picture, Even if Painted with Words, Speaks Volumes

Posted on September 2, 2011


I was challenged in email by one of AT&T’s finest employees with the below conundrum. Included on the email where several other friends, more given to similar feelings.

Mark 11:12-14, 20-21 –
12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry:
13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.
14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever. And his disciples heard it.
20 And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
21 And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.
Points to remember
* Jesus was hungry.
* He looked for figs on a tree.
* But it was not fig season.
Questions to ponder
* If it wasn’t fig season, why would one even look for figs?
* Is killing a tree for not bearing fruit out of season a reasonable response by any standard?

I replied, that is a good one and humorous at first glance but I would challenge you to consider several other explanations which might shed light on this passage.

  1. A slight mistranslation of the Hebrew in v13.  Hebrew text is: “ou gar hn kairov sukwn” which more accurately might be translated “For it was not the season of gathering figs yet”.   For more evidence that “Kairov” signifies the time of gathering the fix, check other usages of it in Ps. 1:3, Mark 12:2, Matt 21:34+ and Job 5:6.  A plausible interpretation is that Jesus saw the tree flourishing with foliage, but upon closer inspection found no figs present. This event happened around the Passover (end March, early April), so there should have been figs present, even if they were not ripe.
  2. The Fig Tree may have been barren for years.  Jesus and his disciples had passed this way many times before on their way to and from Bethany, where Jesus’ closest friends lived, it is likely that Jesus and his disciples were very familiar with this fig tree and that perhaps it had served no purpose for many years.  Therefore a fruit tree that produced no fruit was essentially worthless – as it is a fruit tree’s reason for being, to produce fruits.
  3. The Fig tree’s sole purpose may well have been just to be an object lesson for the disciples, where the fig tree may have been an analogy of the Christ follower, the nation of Israel, the church or all of them..

To what purpose, did it serve Jesus to curse a barren fig tree?

One interpretation might be, just as it is the duty of a fig tree to produce fruit, likewise it is the duty of his followers, to bear fruit in their life.  The warning being, that if you choose to follow Jesus and yet you produce no benefit to your neighbor or ease the suffering of those in prison, impoverished, starving or sick, then you are no different than that fig tree.

There is also another account of this fig tree incident, where Jesus says that they should prune, water and fertilize it for one year, basically give it everything it needs to be healthy and produce fruits and if it still does not produce figs, then chop it down and burn it.  A stern warning to his followers that judgment will not be put off forever.

I received responses like:

…there’s a LOT of assumptions in what you’ve written, not supported by the “literal word” that was quoted.  An example for his disciples that they should produce benefit to the people?  Sorry, you’re extrapolating something that’s not there.”

Yes, I am extrapolating but only because I have a greater familiarity with the biblical text.  My friend was not familiar with the Fruits of the Spirit (9 Christ attributes his followers should exhibit).  E.g. the first fruit of which is “Love” or “agape” in the Greek (Galatians 5:22-23).  Strong’s Concordance defines agape as “…an undefeatable benevolence and unconquerable goodwill that always seeks the highest of the other, no matter what he does. It is the self-giving love that gives freely without asking anything in return, and does not consider the worth of its object.”

Jesus says in John 13:35 “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Just as a fig tree’s purpose is to produce fruit, so too is a follower of Christ’s purpose to produce these 9 Fruits of the Spirit.

Another friend responded with the below.

“I find Dave’s poetic rendition quite nice. I like it. It makes sense. And I make way in my mind that his interpretation is likely one interpretation that many of that religion believe. Also, I am open to that interpretation as a tool for teaching in the ways of that religion.

However, if the purpose of that passage was the lesson Dave presented, then I find the passage suspicious, to say the least. Why write in such oblique and terse form?

It seems that one needs a priest / pastor / father / rabbi / whatever just to tell him what is really really really really meant by this passage and that passage. That’s what Mary Eddy Baker did. She gave the REAL interpretation of the Christian passages. Each speaker from the pulpit in a real sense invents their particular view of the same religion, each time they sermonize.

That’s fine. But it’s just not my taste.”

My friend raises some valid concerns and observations.  It got me thinking about why Jesus spoke in parables.  Wouldn’t it have been easier for all of us, if he just gave the definitive interpretation?  It would certainly leave no room for guessing, personal interpretation or mis-use.

I responded that it was Socrates 101 and a barometer of one’s own acumen.  When confronted with something unclear, it’s in the clarification questions that a person asks which tells the teacher where they are at in their comprehension; based on that level, the teacher can being the instruction there.

There are examples where Jesus tells a parable to the masses.  Later over dinner the apostles were like, what did you mean by that one, Jesus? It’s then that he spoke more openly about it.  It is often in the dialogue that meaning is revealed. The nature of parables is that they always speak to you were you are at.  That’s why people say that the bible is the living and active Word of God.  It speaks to you (without the need of an interpreter) where you are at.  A child is just as able to glean something profitable for himself as an adult, rich or poor, learned or not.  The more you mature in wisdom and the experience of life, the deeper the insight you will glean. The concept is to meditate upon a parable and you will find a real life application for yourself.  The danger is when we try to take this personal application and try to enforce it as a legalistic grocery list of do’s and don’ts for all people.  We see that happening too frequently.

It’s actually the most efficient means for communicating complex knowledge to groups of people and it also is very Jewish.

The email responses became a bit more caustic, at this point, but that is not a bad thing, as it means we’re getting closer to the meat of the matter…the real objection.

Interpretations have a nasty way of breeding small mindedness, as well as gruesome murders.

Interpretations only breed small-mindedness if the interpreter is arrogant enough to demand and believe that his/her interpretation is the only true and right one and all others are wrong and should be censured and/or put to death. This relates to theistic organizations or individuals, just as well as to secular powers and atheistic regimes and organizations.

Seek and you will find. But a tightly worded argument leaves little to the imagination. You bring up Socrates, perhaps some more biographical reading would help to understand his manner of teaching.

Exactly, that is why Jesus spoke in parables and not long grocery lists of does and don’t.  It’s about relationships and not religious dogma.  The Socratic Method is a line of discourse which is known for asking questions to help lead another to discover the truth.

Your opinion is parables are most efficient for masses, for complex knowledge. Fine. I accept your opinion. I however, do disagree with it.  Factual knowledge need no longer be packaged in memorable campfire stories, to be able to pass along like a big game of “telephone.” I can buy a 1.5 terabyte drive for under $200…….. So take your time, think about it, and really let me know in as many words as you need, just what your thoughts are all about.

I could be wrong, but it makes sense that if Jesus knew that his message would reach a myriad of different people, of different ages, in different countries, at different points in human history, with different levels of formal education, at different times in their lives, etc., speaking in parables is very effective, in that it paints a pictures (which is how the brain learns) and allows for each individual to receive it at the level that they are currently at and invites them to consider what it means for them at whatever place in time that they are.

The human brain doesn’t function/learn as if it had a hard drive to store specific knowledge and memories.  While knowledge doesn’t need to be packaged into campfire stories, using your own word, it does make it more “memorable”.  A picture, even if painted with words, speaks volumes.  That’s what parables are and that’s why they are some memorable – pictures are the way our brains learn.

The human mind is structured and as such, has an optimal way of processing information.  It’s hierarchical; high level concepts first and then drill down into the details.  For me to teach a class on microbiology, it would work contrary to my purpose of educating my students to start having them memorize the scientific names of the smallest parts of life without providing first a context or framework to which it all relates to.  As that context is understood, it’s more conducive to long-term memory, to learn the progressively smaller breakouts.

Keep in mind; we are not dealing with chemicals, medical procedures, or how to build a compostable engine here.  Those are areas where we need and expect to receive explicated scientific facts – hopefully supported by actual science.  In the realm of morals, philosophies, spirituality, it’s far less simple to take someone shallow and make them empathetic and wise just by having them memorize the Ten Commandments or the Teachings of Laozi.  Therefore, it requires a different approach to learning.

Parables aren’t much different, to me.   They are subject to the subjective; we put a bit of ourselves in our explanation of the parable. A creative or imaginative mind in no way indicates a specific mind that understands the “true” meaning of the parable.

That’s right.  Now you are catching on.  The true meaning of the parable can’t be known, because there is no ONE TRUE MEANING, it can change based on wherever the individual is at different moments of their life.  It’s completely personal, but we can help each other to consider what the parable is speaking to them at a given point in their life, just by sharing how the parable has spoken to us, over time.

That is precisely why Jesus did not give a definite interpretation for it he did, then the learning would cease at that moment and there would be no need for us to ever reconsider a more personal meaningful interpretation for us today.  Jesus knew that there was no definitive answer, as the answer changes according the person asking the question and when in their life they are asking the question.

I find no comfort in religions that require an interpreter. It’s such an obvious scenario for abuse of power. And that power is abused. It is abused throughout centuries.

I hate religion as well.  That’s why after searching across so many of them, I have at last (and I am still in this process – still trying to sort it all out) come to an understanding that it’s a uniquely personal individual journey that has nothing to do with a grocery lists of do’s and don’ts; but everything to do with a relationship with the Creator.

That relationship looks differently depending up each person.  Say Chris is God.  I have a relationship with Chris.  You have a relationship with Chris.  He talks to me three times a year.  He talks to you 20 times a year.  We talk about what’s going on in our lives – our activities.  You talk with him about your inner angst and emotional struggles.  Chris asks nothing of me, but he requires that you stop by and visit once a week to keep on good terms.

Now, considering that our relationships with him are sooooo different:

  • Is either one of our relationships with Chris false?  I would say no.
  • Is Chris a different person?  I would say no, again.  We each have a different unique relationship with him.

Is it right for me to enforce upon you the requirement that you MUST have the same relationship with Chris that I have?  No, not only is it wrong, but it could actually be counterproductive and lead you to reject Chris all together.

The same mistake is made all too frequently when folks labeling themselves as Christians become personally convicted about an activity they participate in, like drinking alcohol or watching movies.  Since they are convicted that these actions are wrong for them, they often jump to the conclusion that they must also be wrong for all Christians.  They then supplant the role of the Holy Spirit and make the mistake of trying to enforce their own personal convictions and lifestyle (a new brand of legalism) upon everyone else.

Just because God has convicted them that they should not participate in an activity, does not mean that they should burden others with the same yoke.  Worse yet, it frequently leads to a division in their mind between two classes of Christians; those in good standing that abstaining from wine and/or movies or otherwise conform to their own lifestyles and those, less holy ones, that do not.

Left unchecked, they become a modern-day Pharisee choosing to adhere to the letter of the law of their own personal convictions but at the expense of Jesus’ spirit of Grace and Love.