Dat Fig Tree Had It Comin’

A Buddhist Reads the Bible: Gospel of Mark from the New Revised Standard Version.  Oxford University Press.

(This is my eighth and final piece on the Gospel of Mark; the other pieces are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

There are any number of things toward the end of the Gospel that I don’t understand, and I won’t pretend I do, or try to figure out an explanation that makes sense, as I’ve heard so many preachers do.  Some things aren’t comprehensible, and that’s part of the Gospel’s charm.  One day when Jesus was hungry he went to a fig tree in leaf and didn’t find any figs, so he said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  Sure enough, before long, the tree had withered.  The disciples saw it.

The Son of God used his supernatural powers to zap a fig tree?

Jesus tells his disciples that if their faith is great enough, they could tell a mountain to get taken up and thrown into the sea, and it will happen.  “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

The phrasing of that translation is a little odd, but that is the teaching that convinced me when I was younger that my faith wasn’t worth beans.  I didn’t want to move a mountain.  I just wanted a girlfriend.  A spot on the football team.  Was that too much to ask?  I won’t point out that Jesus is about to not get something he’ll ask for in prayer.  I will just say I’m puzzled by that statement.  (When I lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, there was a young woman who had been born with only one arm who went to an evangelical church there.  The people in the church told her that if she prayed hard enough, she’d grow a new arm.)

The subject of prayer comes up because we’re about to see the most intense example of it in the whole Gospel, but first we must read Chapter 13, which is loaded with apocalyptic imagery (it was actually one off the most familiar chapters when I read it, I’ve heard people quote it so much).  I pretty much don’t understand a word of it.  My wife cautioned me on a walk last week that I shouldn’t presume to speak on any of these things, because they come out of a long history of prophecy that I don’t really know, and I’m sure that’s right.  I would like to speak about just one sentence (probably the most controversial one, alas).  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

I’d like to bring up the possibility that Jesus—though he was the Son of God (whatever that means; I’m sorry, I just don’t understand), though he obviously did know a whole tradition of prophecy about the end times, though he correctly predicted his own approaching end (unless the Gospel writer just put that in there, to go along with the facts)—might have been wrong about some things.  That wouldn’t, for me, diminish his teaching in the least.  He knew many things, but didn’t know everything.

I say that because, in the Buddhist tradition, there’s no assumption that enlightened beings know everything.  They might even have moral failings that would seem impossible in an enlightened being, and engage in behavior that is puzzling if not incomprehensible (like zapping a fig tree).  They’re great, they’re one with everything (is that what it means to be the Son of God?) but they’re not perfect.  To be human is to be imperfect.

Those somewhat inhuman moments—the whole of Chapter 13 is one dire prophetic warning after another —are followed by the most human moments in the Gospel.  A woman comes to him and pours an expensive ointment on his head, and some object that the money could have been given to the poor, but he appreciates what she did.  You can always give money to the poor, he says, you can’t always care for me.  He tells the disciples that they’re going to deny him, not just Judas, but every one of them, and they vehemently disagree, but he can see it coming; they’re just not strong enough.

Then he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane, for me the saddest and most moving moment in the story.  He asks the disciples to sit with him while he prays.  “I am deeply grieved,” he says, “even to death.”  Jesus seems at that moment completely human, facing the enormous pain and injustice that were coming.

There’s an assumption that we know what prayer is, that we know what it is for Jesus, that the disciples know what it is (though we never see them praying.  Jesus recommends prayer to them, but we never see them doing it).  He doesn’t ask them to pray with him.  He asks them to sit and stay awake while he prays.

Prayer was actually the thing that drove me away from Christianity, the fact that I didn’t understand it, didn’t know what it was, didn’t know how to do it, didn’t seem to do it well.  Here is a situation where Jesus clearly wants one thing, and another thing is about to happen, and he—apparently—knows it’s about to happen, and still goes to pray.  He goes to God in his extremity, in the terrible pain that all this is causing him.  Nothing changes.  He just prays.

It seems to me that this is the essential situation of all prayer, despite what Jesus said earlier about moving the mountain.  We all have things we want, but those wishes spring up in a larger situation which we know nothing about and don’t have any control over.  Christians, in that context, pray for what they want; Buddhists sit and watch their wants and let go of them.  What is going to happen then happens, for both groups.

In the old days, when I prayed in a Christian context, I assumed there was something wrong with me.  Now I find sitting there helpful, no matter what happens.  It’s not helpful because somebody heard my wish and took account of it.  It’s helpful because I see my wishes in a larger context, and understand the world doesn’t revolve around me.

Jesus saw what was coming, and knew what would happen.  It helped him to tell God what he wanted.

There doesn’t seem to be any reason to go over the events of the crucifixion, which I’ve heard many times—I attend Good Friday services with my Catholic wife—and about which I don’t have anything new to say.  I’m always struck by the way it was the High Priests who really wanted Jesus killed; Pilate saw no guilt in him and couldn’t understand why people wanted him crucified.  Jesus spoke to the priests and told them who he was, but didn’t defend himself to Pilate at all, to the man’s amazement.  Pilate seems a prime example of the reasonable man who sees evil happening and doesn’t stand in its way.

At the moment of death Jesus speaks the famous words, actually comforting to the rest of us, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  It is like his moment of despair in the Garden.  If he could feel forsaken, we don’t need to feel so bad when we do.  The little detail of the way people misheard him, thinking he had called on Elijah, is another one of those moments which makes the account seem more real.

My old teacher Reynolds Price was obsessed with another such episode in the story, which happens during Jesus’ trial: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”  I seem to remember that some people think it is this young man who is at the tomb at the end.  “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side.”

The “they” in this case is Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, who had come to anoint the body.  It is interesting that, though the men seem uniformly to fail Jesus at the end, the women do not.  There was the woman who brought the ointment, and understood how precious it was just to be with him.  Now these women show up when everyone else has fled.  The Gospel’s short ending, without the additions that scholars think were added later, is far more effective from a literary standpoint, and leaves us with the same sense of mystery that so much of the Gospel has.  The tomb is empty; there’s no body for the women to anoint.  “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Great ending.  Leave it at that.