Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nathanael's Figs, or the Case of the Fickle Ficus

Nathanael's amazement parallels that of the woman at the well, and leads him to utter his high christology:

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” 

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” [John 1:48-50, NIV]

Just what Nathanael was doing under his fig tree is up for speculation. Some say the fig tree is the Torah and a man under it is under study and contemplation, and messianic expectation. If so, then Nathanael's declaration has a context unspoken but very real. Regardless, the scene is one of thematic discovery; belief results from something hidden becoming revealed, identity clarified by supernatural knowledge. But Jesus, in a Jolsonian gesture, responds to the declaration of identity with teasing expectation: μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ (you ain't seen nothin' yet).

Jesus (and perhaps biblical divinity) has an interesting relationship with fig trees. They are a gift of God, as Nathanael himself, or a gift that takes away. They punctuate the Synoptic Olivet discourses, and get themselves withered, just for being out of season. If Jesus had his way (and when it comes to fig trees he often does), there would be no cover under the ficus: tree, fruit, or leaves. 

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”And his disciples heard him say it. [Mk. 11:13-14, NIV]

There is a more compressed Matthean disposition of this episode as well (Matt. 21:18ff). In the Marcan version, the cleansing of the temple intervenes before the discovery of the withered and cursed fig tree. This fig tree, whose only fault is to be seasonally out of sync with Jesus's hunger, will not only bear no fruit again (and be useless to punctuate the time of tribulation), but will wither away in short order, and provide cover or contemplation to no one. Nathanael will need to search out another tree.

The fickleness of the fig tree is not unprecedented in scripture. Whether the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil or the Tree of Life were themselves of the ficus is purely conjectural, but the man and his wife took cover under aprons of fig leaves, and there would be no little poetry in those leaves coming off the tree that started the whole business. The Lord taketh and the Lord giveth. But whatever those two were trying to cover up-eth, Jesus would have none of it. He strips the fig tree in order to recreate it, to make it new, a sign, a mark of what is to come. The new fig tree is something discovered and restored to its primal meaning, reconfigured as a sign of the times which, deconstructed and reconstructed, Jesus can then use to parabolically punctuate the discourse on an emerging world.

He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. [Luke 21:29-31, NIV]

The cleansing of the temple strips out its corruption and prepares it for a new time, a time of the Kingdom. The withered fig tree punctuates the purge in the temple and the reconstruction of sacred space as the new fig tree, sprouting shoots and leaves, heralds the summer of a sacred time. The meat of the Marcan sandwich is the flesh of fresh figs. 

The Matthean Jesus, too, is about a new space and a new time, and a reconstruction of proper relationships.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. [Matthew 19:4-8, NIV]

And there it is: sklerokardia. Hardness of heart is at the heart of the hardness of Jesus toward the fig tree. The advent of the Kingdom, of tribulation and the terrible day of the Lord, rides on the tender young shoots and leaves of the new ficus. Metanoia, the softening and making fertile the hardness of hearts of stone, is the event harbored in the saturated phenomena of the cursing of the tree and the cleansing of the temple. Biblical personages and readers are not somehow transported to 'the' beginning, but are renewed in the potential space of a Kingdom come. Everything is new, the fig leaves come off, the tree is restored: a sign of things to come.

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