This morning as I pulled up the blinds, I noticed a hundred or so miniature apples lying on the ground under our flowering crabapple tree. I wondered, with this odd summer with cool temperatures and excessive rain, if the tree was damaged and losing its fruit as a result. A bit later, my wife assured me that this happens every summer. At least half of our household has a good memory.
Synchronicity again interrupted the routine when, a few minutes after my visual gaff, I read a paragraph concerning the maligned fig tree cursed by Jesus. The book is titled, Putting Away Childish Things by Uta Ranke-Heinemann. In her chapter chiding the Evangelists for inserting miracle stories into their works, she finds the fig tree scenario pitiful. She says of it, “The most eccentric of all of the miracles is the sad story of the innocent fig tree.” Further on she writes, “It thus becomes the stupidest of all of the miraculous fairy tales.” What was the point of this ‘miracle? Jesus, she states, surely should never be saddled with such miraculous doings.
It withered, no doubt dropping the tiny, undeveloped fruit onto the ground around the tree. Like my Japanese crabapple tree.
Were I a preacher confronted with such a stupid element in the so-called story of Jesus, what would I scramble to say about it? Not only that idiocy, but what about the fairy tale about the demons driven into the pigs that commit suicide? How does this make the story of Jesus more believable, wonders Ranke-Heinemann?
The author shares a keen observation in this chapter on miracles. She notes that fantasy and precision surprisingly go hand in hand. The more precise the details the more likely the fantasy. “Fantasy fills in all of knowledge’s gaps, and not with coarse strokes but with fine touches of a miniaturist. Witness often know more about the episode twenty years later than they did immediately afterward,” she writes.
Yet there are hundreds of millions of Christians who not only don’t get this, but also believe that the authors of the Gospels were the witnesses. The question arises: Why doesn’t someone tell them that? Why? Well, what do they say about a house of cards or sandcastles built too close to the ocean?
Regarding this trend of fantasy toward specificity, we can easily see this in the so-called last words of Jesus on the cross. The earliest writer, Paul, has nothing at all to say. Mark, twenty years later has Jesus say one line. Luke, a decade later, puts three long phrases on the lips of Jesus as does John, writing 60 years after Paul. John has Jesus talk to his Mother and to the disciple John, giving them final instructions. Unfortunately, Mark said that everyone fled the scene.
Apparently neither John nor Luke could abide the last words reported in Mark- the one about God abandoning Jesus. That ‘fact’ doesn’t go too well with a messiah who is dying for the sins of every human already dead and the billions more yet to be born. Rather, the fantasy needed tweaking so as to fit the substitutional blood sacrifice.
Withering figs, suicidal swine and elegant phrases from a suffocating man, gasping for air.
Putting away childish things.