Tetherd Cow Ahead Presents: The Baffling Bible
Episode #5: Jesus and the Fig Tree

When I was a kid in Sunday School, I learned lots about the life of Jesus. I knew the stories of the Sermon on the Mount, the casting out of demons into swine, the miracle of the loaves & fishes, the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables in the tabernacle and many other colourful yarns that have turned out to have about as much relevance to my adult life as they did to my ten-year-old self.

One baffling tale that doesn’t usually get much of an airing when the life of Our Lord is being recounted, though, is the story of Jesus and the Fig Tree. It certainly didn’t make it into my Bible class back in the day – I think it’s just possible that’s because a ten-year-old might’ve empathized with it all too well.

To set the the scene: Jesus has returned from his 40 days and nights in the desert where he has had a lengthy hobnob with God, and is traipsing across the countryside accumulating crowds1 of the faithful and assembling the cabal of chaps who would end up as his apostles. This is the Jesus of Matthew and Mark. This is the Jesus we all know and love from the comic books; he has just appeared to his followers (and Matthew & Mark’s readers) in dazzling white raiment which of course proves he is not just some guy like all the other common-garden-variety Messiahs who were touring the land at the time. In addition, he takes every opportunity to voice noble (if mostly obvious and occasionally curious) moral advice, and he performs miracles. Lots of them.2

The Story of the Fig Tree is one such miracle. We’ll take up the tale with Jesus waking up one morning after having spent the night in the countryside outside Jerusalem (somewhere around here I figure). Over to Matthew to relate the tale in his compelling literary style:

Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered.

And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.

And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away!

~(Matthew 21:19)

In other words, because Jesus was hungry and there were no figs, he threw a tantrum and did the supernatural equivalent of punching his fist through the wall: he put a curse on the tree. Kapow! Take THAT you stupid tree! I’ll teach you not to have figs out of season!

Now religious scholars are quick to put forward all kinds of explanations for this decidedly tetchy Saviour behaviour. It’s certainly not fashionable these days to have Jesus to appear to petulantly invoke his super powers out of spite, so most modern Christian scholars interpret the story of Jesus and the Fig Tree as some kind of metaphorical statement about the condition and the predicted eventual fate of the Jewish nation.

But I want you to pause and reflect on that for a moment. None of Jesus’ other miracles get the ‘allegory’ explanation. If Jesus does a really cool thing – like healing a blind man, say, or walking across a lake – that’s not a metaphor. That’s a myrrh-soaked, gold-plated, frankinsence-doused, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-and-never-be-resurrected MIRACLE! But when Our Lord chucks a tanty and fries a fig tree, well then, that must be symbolic

That’s all well and good, and I might even buy it except for one thing: both Matthew and Mark independently make the effort to point out that Jesus was hungry. This tiny detail makes nonsense of the fall-of-the-Jewish-nation explanation. How does that high-falutin’ symbolism have anything to do with Jesus not getting breakfast? Plus, it just gives the whole story a ring of truth – I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

No, Faithful Acowlytes, I believe that the most reasonable hypothesis for this story is that Jesus just got out of bed on the wrong side and took his grumpiness out on the first thing he saw (and I offer this as scientific endorsement of my assertion). Luckily it was just a tree – his dad had something of a tendency to take his pique out on entire cities.

Or maybe, just maybe, the Westboro Baptist Church has had it right all along, only their bibles have a small typographical error…

  1. We should take mentions of ‘crowds’ in the Bible with a grain of salt. That part of the world was not especially densely populated at that time, and I suspect that if you got a toothless man and his wife and their goat to come out and look at you, that probably counted as a ‘crowd’. Especially in the eyes of someone spinning a yarn to beat up some PR, as Matt and Mark unquestionably are. []
  2. I feel I have to point out that, in the light of the way we are familiar with ‘healings’ & clairvoyance and visions of the Virgin and other contemporary ‘miracles’, you don’t have to try too hard to come up with fairly reasonable non-supernatural explanations for all Jesus’ marvellous conjurations. And given nearly 20 centuries of undoubted ’embroidery’, well… []

You’re right, there’s no proof… but there’s no proof of Jesus…

Sometimes I just love teh internetz!

[…Deconstructing the Transforming Melbourne document – continued from here. This is the longest post, but also contains the nastiest material. Charitable Christians? Not in this town.]

Their [atheists’] control of major media outlets means they can daily run a crusade for their faith,

Atheists control major media outlets? Wow. That’s news to me. I really wish it were so, but sadly that isn’t the case. And a crusade? Do you even know the root of that word, Mr Isaachsen?

[French croisade and Spanish cruzada, both ultimately from Latin crux, cruc-, cross.]

Any of the military expeditions undertaken by European Christians in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Methinks this is a pot-calling-the-kettle-black situation you’ve got going there. I guess you’d have phrased that a little differently if you’d spent more than a nano-second of spittle-flecked-ranting-thought on it.

I’m tired of saying it, but it obviously just doesn’t sink in with people whose brains are ‘wired’ for religion: atheism is NOT A FAITH. It’s not ABOUT faith. It has nothing to do with faith. You can keep on trying to paint it that way, but none of us see it like that. It is a measure of your great failure to understand what we’re talking about that you continue to attempt to portray us as being just like you.

Atheism has become a new “evangelistic religion”, seeking to gain converts and stir opposition to Christianity.

No, it hasn’t. Atheists don’t ‘seek to gain converts’. Atheists seek the freedom to let people decide for themselves how the world works without influencing them with superstition. If you had real faith that what you believe is right, Mr Isaachsen, surely this shouldn’t concern you quite so much.

This new religion calls for adherents to a level of faith to believe that there is no meaning in life, there is no God, and that the only “real” things are those you can touch or prove. To believe anything else would be illogical (what they do about proving or disproving “love” is a mystery).

OK, well, now it’s obvious that he’s just raving. Atheism, as I keep saying, is not a religion and does not involve faith. And it certainly isn’t new, any way you want to look at it. And notice how he folds a whole lot of puerile and simplistic assertions up together and presents them as if they are one wholistic fact. Although atheists don’t feel the need to believe in a supernatural being that takes a personal interest in our affairs (we don’t believe in God – fact), I don’t know a single atheist or humanist who says that ‘there is no meaning in life’, or that ‘the only real things are those you can touch or prove.’ These are gross misrepresentations of an atheist viewpoint, and Mr Isaachsen undertakes them out of wilful malice or ignorance. I am inclined toward the former, given the tone of his tract.

I won’t even bother with his silly faux puzzlement about ‘proving’ or ‘disproving’ love. I can’t even fathom a brain that thinks with such superficial banality.

The promoters of this “religion” are strong on seeking to undermine Christianity and religion, and are engaged in widespread attempts to have the core values of our society removed.

While Mr Isaachsen is very happy to promote atheism as a religion here, I wonder how keen he’d be to see it get the kinds of tax breaks that his Church does? Not very, I wager. Like many religious people, especially Christian religious people, he seems to see atheism as some kind of anarchistic form of Satanism. No atheist in my sphere of knowledge is attempting to ‘have the core values of our society removed’. It’s fearful and hyperbolic language designed to frighten people who don’t know better. You see, what he’s doing here is saying that Christianity has some kind of monopoly on all the things we consider good and valuable in our society, and that those kinds of values simply can’t come from anywhere else. Any reasonable person would realise, after a moment of reflection, that many, many societies through history have managed to have very decent lives without even having heard of the Christian religion. This frightening hubris is extraordinary, given the widely promoted emphasis on meekness and humility within Christian philosophy. This idea that Christianity is the be-all and end-all of how to live a life is far from meek or humble.1

An example is their moves to undermine the traditional nature of family based of the marriage of a man and a woman and the children they bear and raise, which is the core of a healthy society.

Ah, there we have it. Where is that Christian tolerance now? Since you’re bashing gays, Mr Isaachsen, why not throw in a couple of stonings and a sacrifice? They come from the same part of the Bible. Or can you, like so many Christians, somehow manage to live your life by the bits of the Bible that suit you and ignore the rest?

They are strong on their style of intellectualism and highly intentional at gaining influence and pulling down religion (and especially Christian faith). It is noticeable that there is little mention of promoting positive contribution to society or of any initiatives or encouragement towards the welfare of our society. (It is recently rumored that atheists have started an overseas child sponsorship programme – perhaps to be able to say they have an interest in welfare programmes.)

I really find it hard to believe that this man is quite as stupid or malicious as he appears. What is that last sentence? A condescending attempt to give an impression there is only ONE non-religious charity out there?! Is he really that small-minded? (That’s mostly a rhetorical question, because I actually think he is.)

The Atheists claim they focus on pursuing the truth, however in publicly attacking the Chaplaincy in schools programme as being negative and for preaching and brainwashing children they deliberately or otherwise deny the truth, and certainly do not reveal how highly valued chaplains are by principals and school that work with them, and the growing number of principals applying to have a chaplain at their school.

OK. Well. That’s incoherent.

On receiving the Australian Foundation of Atheists “Australian Humanist of the Year” award, Dr Leslie Cannold urged her audience to organise and fight back against religious fundamentalists who take advantage of Australia’s acceptance of religious freedom to push their ”violently intolerant ideologies’

Oh right, so what you’re saying then, Mr Isaachsen, is that we should condone religious fundamentalists? Like the ones who flew planes into the World Trade Center, perhaps? And you, by chance, advocating violently tolerant ideologies? Because it sure sounds that way…

She went on to make the extraordinary claim that “Christianity is a greater threat to society that militant Islam”.

No, she did not (evidently Christians have no compunction about lying as part of their modus operandi, just as I inferred last post). What Dr Cannold said, in fact, was:

My point here is not to suggest that [proselytizing] is not morally repugnant and a real cause for alarm – it is – but to point out that in Australia the risks it poses emanate primarily from evangelical Christian fundamentalists, not jihadist Muslims.

… which is a very different proposition entirely. She is saying, in case I need to make it clear, that religious proselytizing by evangelical Christian fundamentalists is of greater concern in Australia than proselytizing from fundamentalist Muslims. I’m pretty sure that a great number of Australians would agree with that statement.

Mr Isaachsen either didn’t read Dr Cannold’s speech, or he is intentionally altering its meaning to suit his purpose. Either way he is being deceitful.2

Where would it lead if they had their way?

“The attempt to eradicate religion only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come.” ~ ‘Evangelical atheism, secular Christianity’ By John Gray – Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics

That has to be the lamest quote in support of an argument that I’ve heard in a very long time. Mr Isaachsen conveniently forgets that Christian history is littered with its (often successful) efforts to eradicate religions with which it has come into conflict. Didn’t seem to be much of a problem when the Christians were hell bent on doing it. As usual, the double standard is in play, bolstered by the haughty Christian conviction that they have the monopoly on a superior morality and spirituality. Mr Isaachsen seems oblivious of the fact that Professor Gray’s quip says, in effect, that ANY religion is better than no religion at all. Christians (including Rob Isaachsen if this tract is an accurate representation of his stance) quite plainly are only prepared to tolerate ONE religion: their own.

It seems clear that if they were to succeed with the atheist’s intentions, the society based on their philosophy would lead to a collapse of much of what we know and enjoy, what is valued by the majority of the population, and what sustains much of the community.

It doesn’t seem at all clear to any thinking person that this apocalyptic scenario would unfold, Mr Isaachsen. You seem once again to have gotten your atheists confused with your anarchists (or perhaps with your Satanists). And once again you seem to think that Christianity is responsible for everything good about our lives and ‘much of what we know and enjoy’. That’s plain bunk. Personally speaking, I have a very enjoyable, love-filled, friend-rich, family-oriented life full of wonder, and inspiration and satisfaction. And, as much as this seems an impossible thing for you to grasp, not one little bit of it is due to Christianity. Or ANY religion. That is purely a conceit of your limited world view.

Secularisation involves doing churchy things in a churchy way by non-churchy people, and while this has resulted in decades of marginalization of the church, it is now recognized that a very obvious partner for governments in the church-type activities is the church itself.

Wow. That ace came off the bottom of the deck so fast that I wonder how many of you saw it? Rob Isaachsen just tried to claim all the commendable acts in the world in the name of the Church! Apparently he believes that there can be no kind of admirable morality without it being somehow the responsibility of religion! How offensive is that? Every doctor in Médecins Sans Frontières, every volunteer for Amnesty International, every one of you who has done something out of human compassion or altruism is just doing a ‘churchy thing’. In fact, your churchy thing, dear Acowlyte, was a lesser deed because it didn’t involve Jesus. What a mean-spirited and selfish philosophy this man holds. If this thinking represents the thoughts of most Christians, then they have every reason in the world to be afraid of atheists and humanists because their shallow morality must inevitably unravel in the face of people who really care.

I’m going to finish this up here, faithful Cowpokes. The Transforming Melbourne diatribe goes on for a while more, but I am sincerely offended, no – disgusted, by the imperious self-righteousness that saturates it, and I don’t care to dismantle it any further. Since I left the Christian Church 35 years ago as a teenager, I have never really been fond of its myopic and outmoded approach, but this new evangelism, fuelled as it is by fear and desperation, stinks of a witch hunt. Which, after all, is a pursuit with which Christianity is very familiar.

  1. The exhortations of meekness and humility are of course just rhetoric. Christians throughout history have displayed arrogance, aggression and hubris in staggering quantities whenever it suited their purposes. The Catholic Church – meek and humble? Give me a break! []
  2. It is possible that he just wasn’t capable of understanding what she was talking about. It wouldn’t surprise me. []

Atheists are the most hated minority group in America. From

Lead researcher of the University of Minnesota Study on American Attitudes Towards Atheists & Atheism, Penny Edgell said that she was surprised by this [result]: “We thought that in the wake of 9/11, people would target Muslims. Frankly, we expected atheists to be a throwaway group.” Nevertheless, the numbers are so extreme that she was led to conclude that they are “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years…

“Given the relatively low number of atheists in America, and the even lower number who are public about their atheism, Americans can’t have come to their beliefs about atheists through personal experience and hard evidence about what atheists are really like.”

Although it’s unlikely that Australians are quite as polarized as Americans, I imagine Professor Edgell’s speculation in that last paragraph still holds for us. Because, when all’s said and done, this is the sum of The Terrifying Atheist Agenda:

OK, well, as I hinted in the first part of my examination of Transforming Melbourne‘s hysterical Christian diatribe, I’ve saved the most misleading and offensive portion of it until last. As I’ve been writing, I’ve realised that it was getting rather longer than I like, so I’m going to break my analysis up into chunks, and intersperse them with other funnier stuff. See how much I love you all?

Shall we resume?

After making some valid points about the current role of religion in Australian society,1 Mr Isaachsen eventually says what is on his mind. And what an enlightening glimpse into the thinking of a religious person it is:

Atheists have a very powerful voice in the media in Australia, frequently broadcasting biased opinions about the importance of rejecting all religion (especially Christianity) claiming it is of no value to society, is non-rational and a deception to the population. They have staged major conferences (including with government assistance) to promote atheism and denigrate religion and are calling on governments to end to the opportunity for any Christian content to be allowed in state schools and certainly to cease any funding for such!

Whoa. I’m almost tempted to laugh here, so hyperbolic does this document become in such a short few sentences. Atheists have a very powerful voice in the Australian media? Really? That comes as a big surprise to me, and I am pretty tuned in to such things. I think what is most upsetting for Mr Isaachsen and his Church is that atheists are actually voicing any opinion at all. He makes it sound like atheists are in control of the airwaves in Australia and that is very far from the truth. If there is anything surprising at all about atheist voices in the Australian media, it is that they have mostly been conspicuous by their absence until recent times. Atheist opinions are significantly challenging for the Church, which has for most of Australian history, had a kind of carte blanche – an unspoken imprimatur, even – to do be the sole arbiter of morality and ethics in Australian life. They really don’t like having that status quo questioned. And the pointed addition of ‘They have staged major conferences (including with government assistance)’ is spectacularly petty. Any assistance given to humanist, rationalist or atheist movements, as Mr Isaachsen must clearly be aware, is a piss in the ocean compared to the kind of government benefits accrued by religions in Australia. Is he trying to get Christians annoyed that some of their tax dollar is going to atheists? Well, sir, welcome to our grievance.

Mr Isaachsen accuses atheists of having biased opinions – a self-evident proposition if ever there was one. They’re hardly going to be unbiased when dealing with the enormous self-righteousness of Christians. He probably believes his bias is superior because he’s got God on his side…

In a vast and incorrect generalization he blankly states that atheists claim that religion ‘is of no value to society’. I doubt you’d find many atheists who would be that extreme and that declamatory. Religion quite evidently has brought value to society, but the question is how much currency that value now has, what that value actually is, and how important or relevant is the religious component of that value? This is a big problem for religion, and for Christians in particular, because their morality and their charity is so caught up in the edict of Jesus to evangelize that they simply can’t understand that good deeds can be, and are, done without an agenda imposed by a supernatural agency.

For example, earlier in the Transforming Melbourne tract, Mr Isaachsen has gone to great pains to point out all the wonderful things that Christian charities have achieved, and the heavy implication is that without them, non-religious people would commit no charitable acts of any kind, ever. He neglects to mention that huge compassionate non-profit organizations like Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Malaria No More, Humanist Charities, the Red Cross and many, many others operate without having heeded ‘Jesus’ call to compassion and justice’. What’s more, these organizations can easily be argued to be more selfless than any of Mr Isaachsen’s examples of Christian charity, for the simple reason that they act out of human compassion and human compassion alone. They are not acting on a command to be good, or being goaded on by the Big Carrot of Heaven or the Big Stick of Hell.

Rob Isaachsen is trying to paint a picture that says an atheist can have no compassion, no care, no charity, no love, no human empathy. And yet it is a trivial task to show he is wrong. He might do well to reflect on the fact that one sincere act of atheist kindness makes nonsense of his whole religion.

[…to be continued…]

  1. Contrary to what Rob Isaachsen and his fellow Transformers think, rational people like myself can see that various Churches have done good things for Australian society. What we question is not the charitable acts, but the motivations behind them. []

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