Jesus

This is not a message I want to deliver, but the Bible leaves me no choice. There is no politically correct alternative.

God hates figs.

There I said. I know this will shock a lot of people but the evidence is overwhelming. Scripture is crystal clear.

What did the prophet Jeremiah use to curse Zedekiah and his cohort? Figs.

What was the first thing Adam and Eve grabbed after disobeying God? Fig leaves.

What was the one and only tree ever cursed by Jesus? Fig tree.

I haven’t even got the numerous passages in the Psalms, Hosea, and Joel where God gleefully imagines destroying every fig tree in sight.

Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding. Maybe I am taking scripture out of context. Maybe God’s hatred towards figs is being overstated. Today I want to explore the story of Jesus murdering a fig tree.

Why would Jesus curse a fig tree that did not have figs on it, especially since the text (Mark’s version) says that “it was not the season for figs”? It is the equivalent of kicking a dog because it does not speak English. Of course, the dog doesn’t speak English. Of course, the fig tree does not grow figs in the wrong season. It all seems a bit odd. Add to this my personal belief that Jesus doesn’t just do stuff willy-nilly. That Jesus doesn’t seem to be the type of person that just flips a lid suddenly and unexpectedly.

In fact, I’d even argue that outside of Matthew 21 and Mark 11, we never see him act out of a place of anger, everything he does is thought through, every time he does something supernatural it has significance. He doesn’t misuse his power.

One problem we may have with this passage, and with the other fig-hating passages I shared above, is that we read them in small chunks. Out of context with the wider narrative. Why do we do that with the Bible? We wouldn’t dream of dipping in and out of random pages and paragraphs of, say, Lord of the Rings because we know it would distort and damage our understanding of the book.

Anyway, In Matthew 21 we read just before the cursing of the fig tree how Jesus went in flipped over tables in the temple while quoting Jeremiah at them ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’. The activities in the temple that once had been fruitful and wholesome had become empty of value and useless. The call of Israel to be a light to the world had been in some real sense hi-jacked not to include others but exclude them and even condemn them.  So God’s house had come to mean something completely other than what it was intended to be.  The Temple had come to symbolize nationalism, oppression, collusion with power, with bloodshed and the exclusion of those God intended to bring into his fold. Is it significant that the very next story is the dead fig tree? Yes. It has to be. The gospel writers are telling us a story. They planned this.

In much wider context, we start to see that the Old Testament often uses the fig tree as a symbol of national Israel:

‘I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord. There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.’ Jeremiah 8:13

‘When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.’ Hosea 9:10,16

‘All your fortresses are like fig trees with their first ripe fruit;’ when they are shaken, the figs fall into the mouth of the eater.’ Nahum 3:12

So let’s start to add up what we believe we know.

  • Jesus doesn’t just smite fig trees for no reason.
  • Jesus has just publicly attacked the temple for twisting its role in society.
  • Fig trees are time and time again used to represent Israel in the Old Testament.

There is one more question that probably needs an answer. Was the fig tree fruitless because it was barren or because it was out of season? The fig tree is noted to have leaves. And those leaves were a sign that the tree was getting nutrition and therefore should produce fruit. Fig trees, however, have two crops. The main fruit comes later, but first there a smaller fruit. This is what Jesus is looking for…and what he does not find. No fruit was budding as they should have been if the tree was going to produce edible figs that year.  The tree appeared to be fruitful, but it only had outward signs of bearing fruit (leaves) and in truth offered nothing of value to anyone.

So where does all of that leave us? Anyone even slightly familiar with the character of Jesus knows that He did not spend His time on this Earth eradicating barren fig trees as an ecological service to Palestinian farmers. There is something more to this story.

This tree was pointing to something but not delivering. It was the signpost pointing to a reality. And if the fig tree represents Israel, then Jesus is not only judging the fig tree for not being a signpost pointing to a reality, but he is using the tree as a symbol of coming judgment on the nation of Israel and the temple. That the nation of Israel and the temple, though they appear to be leafy, are not keeping with the fruit that Jesus is calling them to. And so, Jesus was not out to condemn a fruitless fig tree; he was pronouncing judgment against the fruitlessness of the nation and temple. The tree is not in trouble, the nation is. The tree has not rejected its Messiah, the nation has. The tree is being used as a symbol, not the object itself, of the judgment.

T. Wright says ‘Part of Jesus charge against his fellow Jews was that Israel as a whole had used its vocation, to be a light for the world, as an excuse for a hard narrow, nationalist piety and politics in which the rest of the world was to be not enlightened but condemned.’

So, this story is not simply about a fig tree’s murder or Temple in Jerusalem but about how the call of God and the privileges God has given us are hi-jacked by power and nationalism to become known not for justice, mercy and other-centeredness but of power, privilege, self-protection and nationalism.

We need to a be fruitful people. A people who don’t take scripture out of context. A people who throw our lot in with the weakest, the forgotten, the abandoned in our society – not the powerful. A people who seek out justice, not self-protection.  A people who believe that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer.

 

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