Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. Matthew 21.18-19.
It is the Monday after Palm Sunday. The previous afternoon, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem to the cries of “Hosanna!” He has briefly visited the temple, then gone back to Bethany with the Twelve and spent the night there. Now it is the morning and Jesus is hungry (presumably they had no food with them as they slept under the olive trees on the hillside) so he is glad to see a fig tree by the side of the road ahead, in full foliage. Even though “it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11.13), Jesus goes to the tree, but when he finds only leaves, he tells the tree, “May you never bear fruit again” and the tree withers away.
This story has always presented something of a difficulty because, on the face of it, Jesus is being quite irrational and unfairly vindictive. If it was not the time for figs, why expect to find any? And then, when there weren’t any, why blame the tree?
Well, it was not quite as simple as that. The “season for figs” was June in the sense that figs were not fully ripe until then, but once a fig tree was in full foliage, there would normally be fruit too — green figs which, though not at all pleasant, were in fact edible. And it seems that Jesus was hungry enough to have eaten a few green figs to staunch his hunger, had there been any. But there were none, and this gives Jesus the opportunity for an enacted parable which will be closely related to the first spoken parable he will tell when he enters the temple again in an hour or so’s time.
That spoken parable is about two sons. “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” (Matthew 21.29-31). The answer is, “The first,” of course, because the second produced nothing but empty words.
The empty words, I believe, correspond to the leaves on the fig tree. The figs that Jesus sought but did not find, correspond, I believe, to the work the first son ended up doing — the fruits of repentance. And the message of the fig tree is that the the person who is all show, all words and no deeds, all feigned obedience, all empty promises, not only comes under divine displeasure but is actually doomed to wither away. Why? Because he is not just telling lies, he is a lie … and a lie cannot co-exist with the Truth.
How can I be sure that that is not me?
Well, to switch (metaphorically) from one fruit tree to another, the answer is that I must abide in Jesus. That is the only way I can be fruitful. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” says Jesus. “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.5). My fruitfulness, my being more than just show and empty words, depends on a life lived in union with Christ. I in him, him in me, day in, day out, 24/7.
Lord Jesus, let me be a branch that bears much fruit, and let there be fruit on me today. Amen.