Figs, Palms, Temples and Social Services

This morning, Matt Atkins spoke. I love it when he talks. He’s dynamic, dangerous, intelligent, and absolutely cares for the people he talks with. All that, and he asks the questions that I have had in my head for years, but couldn’t ever articulate.


Today is Palm Sunday. What’s Palm Sunday?

Some of us know the story about Jesus going on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem before Passover, as was custom. As he got close to the city, people starting cheering him and waving palm branches around. Sounds pretty normal and blase. But, if we (those who know the story) stop taking things for granted and start asking questions, we come up with some interesting (and possibly dangerous) results.

What’s the significance of the palm branches? Why did they all of a sudden start cheering him on?

Jesus went into the temple, checked it out, left the city, and then came back the next day. But, on his way back, he cursed fig tree – somewhat out of character for the typical Jesus we think of. He then proceeded to the temple, started chucking stuff around and throwing people out. He was ticked off. Why? Is there a correlation between the fig tree and the temple?

Enough Questions Already

So, here’s the background (according to Matt; I haven’t personally researched it all, yet).

Jesus was riding into Jerusalem through the East Gate. This is significant because Jewish prophecy says that the Messiah will come through the East Gate. Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah plenty of times before, so it’s kind of nerve racking when the guy claiming to be the Messiah enters Jerusalem through the East Gate during the pilgramage (essentially fulfilling prophecy). The crowds started going crazy because he was telling the people that he was the Messiah again, during his ride.

But why palm branches? They could have waved their hands, cloaks, nodded their heads. A palm branch is the icon of future political liberation for the Jews. They waved them like we wave our flags. It was a symbol of Jewish nationalism. When they eventually did become a nation and minted their own coins, a palm branch was on it.

They’re not cookies, they’re figs

Jesus was irritated. After a pilgrimage to the holiest building on the holiest mountain in the holiest city during the holiest time of year it was anticlimactic. In fact, it wasn’t just anticlimactic, it was outright irreverance.

Passover was of the greatest importance to the Jews, and the temple priests were making money off of it. The people came with their sacrifices and were told they couldn’t be used (their sins would not be forgiven if they didn’t have a pure sacrifice). To sacrifice properly, and do the Passover properly, and to cover the sins of your family, you needed a proper animal. Well, the merchants not only capitalized on this by selling pure animals at a premium price, but made money off of an exchange rate for “temple money” so that they could even purchase it in the first place, regardless of the price. What a crock!

No wonder Jesus was ticked off.

So, he left to Bethany for the night. Hungry along the way back the next morning, he saw a fig tree up ahead. When he got to it, it didn’t have any fruit on it (although it had all the leaves pointing to the idea that it should have fruit). He cursed the tree and kept on moving.

The next day, after having a hay-day on the temple merchants, the disciples saw the tree and were amazed that it was all withered from the roots up.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting….

Oooooh, interesting

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Many people see this verse and think Jesus is telling them that they can get anything they want. But in context, Jesus is saying something very different.

Anyway, what’s important here is that he’s not just pointing at any mountain. He’s pointing to the temple on the mountain (a.k.a. the Temple Mount). In his day, saying something about destroying the temple would be a huge deal! And he’s saying if the disciples did it (with God’s blessing), nothing would change. He’s referring to the same thing as the fig tree. They have no fruit, so what good is it?

The point

No fruit means no worth. But take it even further and we find that it’s not just results or fruit Jesus is after. The temple priests and merchants sat in the temple, but their actions had no relation to God. To use a common metaphor, they were not grafted into the vine.

The only way we’ll ever produce fruit/results that matter is if God is the source of the idea or the action. It’s like if your boss told you to go do something. You’ll be measured on what you produce for him/her. If he/she told you to do something and you did your own thing, it wouldn’t really matter would it? It’s not what he/she wanted you to do.

Why is this dangerous stuff? Because if we’re not connected to the source, if we don’t hear his voice, we’re probably going about it all wrong. And if we’re not doing what he’s asking us to do as Christians, then we’re of no worth and we might as well be that fig tree or the temple mount cast into the sea.

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

3 Comments on "Figs, Palms, Temples and Social Services"

  1. Isaac says:

    Good to hear about an actual informative sermon or whatever!

  2. nate says:

    Yea, this one actually kicked my butt. I’m pretty stoked about it.

  3. Sarah Kim says:

    Hi Nate,

    I saw you at the Community 2.0 Conference and started following your blog. Thanks for this fresh perspective on a familiar story. I wanted to recommend a book to you that my pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley just finished writing. His name is Mark Labberton and the book is called “The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice” . You can find it on Amazon. Extremely worthwhile reading.


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