Sifting for meaning in the Bible.

A few hours after my daughter was born, I picked up the Bible for the first time in years. I was in a small local hospital, and as my wife and newborn slept peacefully in a bed beside me, I noticed a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version sitting on the nightstand.

I picked it up and flipped through the pages and was surprised to find the book was not the medieval-sounding “King James” version I had glanced at in hotel rooms in the past. This bible was written in a modern-day tongue. And while I can’t say that any one passage stood out to me, I was struck by how surprisingly readable it was.

Several weeks later, as we began planning a baptism for our new daughter to appease our extended families, I contacted our small town’s only religious institution, a quaint Methodist church. I made plans to meet with the reverend, complete the necessary paperwork, and schedule a baptismal date.

It got me thinking it was an appropriate time to bone up on the teachings of Jesus–and I knew the perfect place to turn. I tracked down a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and over the next few days I read the four synoptic Gospels from beginning to end.

While I found several passages worth underlining, it struck me that trying to find meaning in the Bible was akin to panning a river for gold.  On occasion I found a shiny nugget, but more often than not, I sifted for meaning and came up empty. Many of the parables were like roads lined by pleasant scenery that led me to dead ends. I even found a few passages that didn’t just confuse me, they troubled me.

One passage I couldn’t figure out was the “Curse on a Fig Tree” in Mark 11:13 and :14.

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

Taking this passage at face value, Jesus comes upon a fig tree bearing no fruit—for good reason, it’s out of season—and in what appears to be a fit of irrational anger declares that the tree will never grow fruit again, evidently killing it on the spot. This baffled me, for if Jesus had the power to bring the fig tree instant death, why didn’t he simply give it a jolt of life so it could bear the fruit he was looking for?

As much as I tried, I couldn’t figure out the lesson to be gleaned from this passage. So I waited until my meeting with the spiritual leader who was to baptize our daughter, Reverend Marks—and I asked him to explain the fig tree parable, whose message seemed contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

He did not give me the definitive answer I thought I would hear. Instead, he looked me in they eye and surprised me by saying: “you know Tom, that passage has often troubled me, as well.” He went on to stress the importance of finding the passages that had meaning to me personally, that’s where I would find the greatest guidance.

For a question that had no good answer, his non-answer felt right. While we may find a religious guide who can point us in the right direction, or a spiritual text that can lead us down the right path, we must take the final few steps on our own.  Ultimately, we must uncover our own answers to the meaning of life and our place in it, developing our own one-to-one relationship with God.

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