On Tuesday, I wrote a post entitled Anything, which looked at the awesome power of prayer. Yesterday, I shared a post called – A Fig Tree – which picked up that theme, and was written by the excellent blogger Bruce Cooper. Some comments on these posts highlighted to me that many do not fully understand the poor little fig tree that Jesus cursed. It is my intention to help you today to grasp why Jesus treated it so harshly.
Let’s look at Mark’s Gospel, which is the parallel account from Matthew 21. Mark splits the story in two halves; so I put the two together here.
In the morning when they were on the way out of Bethany, Jesus was hungry.
13 He saw a fig tree a little way off with leaves on it. So he went to see if it had figs. He came to the tree. There was no fruit on it, only leaves. It was not the time for figs.
14 Jesus said to the tree, `No one will ever eat a fig from you again!’ His disciples heard what he said.Mark 11:12-14 WEB
19 In the evening Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 The next morning they passed the fig tree again. They saw that it had died from the roots.
21 Peter remembered about it. He said, `Look Master, you cursed the fig tree and it has died.’
22 Jesus said, `Believe in God.
23 I tell you the truth. Anyone may say to this hill, “Go and jump into the sea.” He must not doubt in his heart, but he must believe that he will have the things he asks for and he will have them.
24 So I tell you, when you ask God for anything believe that you will get it and you will have it.Mark 11:19-24 WEB
So, Jesus wants some breakfast. Seeing the fig tree (from a distance presumably), the green leaves make the promise of fresh fruit. As He examines the tree, He find not one fig. Jesus is clearly displeased and curses the tree, saying no one will ever eat of it again.
In the second half of the story, Jesus and His disciples pass the very same tree and find it withered. They are amazed, and Jesus uses it as a teaching opportunity about the power of prayer and faith.
Many people feel rather sorry for this poor little fig tree. I mean, did it really do anything wrong? Or at least, did it do anything so wrong it deserved to be cursed unto death?
If you do feel sorry for the tree, then I have to tell you that you have misunderstood the point of the text. This fig tree was a phony – worse, it was a liar. It displayed its leaves to the world, offering the promise of fruit and nourishment, but did not deliver. It said one thing, and did another.
The key to understanding this picture is to read what happens in between the two halves of the account.
15 They reached Jerusalem. Jesus went into the temple. He began to drive out the people who were buying and selling in the temple. He threw down the tables of the money changers. He pushed down the seats of those who sold doves.
16 He would not let anyone carry anything through the temple.
17 He taught the people, saying, `The holy writings say, “My house shall be called a house for all tribes and nations, where people talk with God.” But you have made it a place for people who steal!’
18 The chief priests and scribes heard what he said. They wanted to find some way to kill him. They feared Jesus because all the people were surprised at his teaching.Mark 11:15-18 WEB
Jesus goes into the temple, and not for the first time, creates something of a disturbance. The temple – the place where people could come and approach God in prayer – has been turned into a market. Complex systems of monetary exchange, purchasing of animals for sacrifice and a general lack of respect enrage the Lord and He turfs them out.
Look at how the priests react in verse 18. They want to kill Him! Why? Because they were likely benefitting from the state of affairs in the temple. Rather than revering the temple’s holiness, they have profited from those seeking to approach God. Jesus is incredibly displeased by this.
The key is this: the priest, who display the outward appearance of holiness, have no true fruit to offer. Like the fig tree, they put out their leaves – wearing fine robes, quoting Scripture, enforcing the Law, applying human traditions to temple worship, and so on. In their hearts however, they do not keep the Law of God, and make it harder to approach God instead of serving the people. They were phonies.
So what is the lesson for us? Are we to go around cursing unfruitful trees? Or ought we to go into church and start turning over tables and chairs? Of course not!
The point is that you and I, by bearing the name of Christ, are displaying leaves to the world. We represent Jesus in our homes, places of work and community, and when people come looking for fruit, we had better make sure they find it.
Don’t carry around a Bible under your arm and be as mean as a snake to those you meet. Don’t put a fish sticker on your car, and then cut off another driver before speeding off into the sunset exceeding the limit. Don’t put “Christian” on your social profile and then share materials far less than holy.
Paul says this in 2 Corinthians 5:
So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”2 Corinthians 5:20 NLT
Christ does not live on the Earth in bodily form anymore, so the only way people can see Him is in us – His church. We represent Him, and we are His ambassadors. God is making His appeal to the world through us! That is a huge responsibility, and one we must all take seriously.
That is not to say we must be perfect, or can never make mistakes, but where possible we must endeavour to back up our words with actions.
Do not feel pity for the fig tree, instead learn its lesson. Be a tree which bears good fruit, and remember the world is watching.