Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 21:18-32) transports me to the streets of Verona, where two bawdy servants of the house of Capulet, Gregory and Samson, are bantering about ways they can conquer and humiliate the house of Montegue. They see two Montague servants approaching, and plot a way to provoke a fight, without breaking the law. They decide on the tried and true Spanish fig curse, aka giving a fig, aka biting the thumb, the obscenity of which is a bit vague to American readers but has something to do with parts of the nether region. Shakespeare undoubtedly knew what the obscenity referred to, and so did his characters, as the gesture did provoke a fight that grew into a street brawl between Montagues and Capulets, better known as the families of Romeo and Juliet, and thus begins scene one of the famous tragedy.
Matthew is here writing his own tragedy of sorts, a tragedy that will eventually turn into the comedy of resurrection. And in the vein of Romeo and Juliet, he is scripting a family feud. It is not how we have come to view it, though, as a feud between the house of Judaism and the house of Christianity. Despite the claims of centuries of supersessionist theology, this was an internal feud within the Jewish family, with Jesus as a full-blooded member of the house of Abraham battling his brothers and sisters and cousins in the faith. But it was a bitter battle nonetheless, as factions were competing on how best to restore dignity and honor to the family that had suffered bitter defeat and Roman occupation. Most of the factions shared one thing in common: an allegiance to the temple system as the center of economic, political, and spiritual power. Jesus came along preaching something different, and just prior to this week’s passage he had gone into the heart of that temple and turned the tables on its system. And now we see him following that revolutionary direct action with a symbolic action no less direct: cursing the fig tree. The fig tree held special symbolic space throughout the Hebrew scriptures, especially for the prophets, who saw the tree as a symbol of fruitful blessing when the covenant community was faithful, and the curse of judgment when the community went astray. Here a hungry Jesus goes to a tree when it is in leaf, expecting some of the early fruits that come before the full bloom season of figs, but those early fruits that foreshadow the coming full blown fruits are not there. The tree is barren. And so he gives it a fig, as the bard would say, and it withers. For Jesus, the entire structure of temple worship was barren and fruitless, only producing leaves of violence, greed, oppression, and discrimination, but not fruits of love, mercy, compassion, and grace. It’s withering away meant that the Jewish people would be free to recover a true sense of their original covenant faith, outside of the temple’s power. And free of that system, the people who really needed God’s grace, the despised publicans and prostitutes, would be strolling into the kingdom and working in the vineyard ahead of the priestly class.
It’s interesting that the European curse, giving a fig, is based somehow on a symbolic flaunting of the reproductive organs, the means to generating new life. Spiritually speaking, we can talk about the means to reproduce the fruit of the spirit of Jesus, the love, the peace, the grace, the joy, the mercy. And it’s interesting that in American slang, the curse has morphed into I don’t give a fig which means you don’t care about something; it’s not worth messing with. Maybe it’s time we recovered that Shakespearean use of the phrase, and in the spirit of Jesus, really give a fig about things that do matter. Maybe with the authority of Jesus, we can find ourselves “authorized” to bite the thumb and give a fig to those branches of our faith family tree that have showy leaves, but have nothing to satisfy the hungers of the hurting, the marginalized, the foreigner in our midst, the poor, the alienated. When we see trees of our faith communities become covered with kudzu-like leaves of violence, greed, and oppression, barren of the fruit of compassion, mercy, and grace, maybe we can don our best Elizabethan duds and play the parts of Gregory and Samson, and banter about some ways to creatively provoke the family, without breaking the law of love of course. At the end of the day, it really is a family feud, and at the end of the day, Jesus’ words will come to pass – the systems of oppression will wither and all of us in the priestly class will have to get in line somewhere behind the prostitutes, who will be the first to enter the kingdom.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Fee free to comment.