A Cursed Fig Tree: That’s Weird
January 21, 2018
To be completely honest, if I was writing the New Testament this is one story I probably would have skipped. And if you were completely honest you have probably been uncomfortable reading it.
It just doesn’t fit with our view of Jesus. We can understand when he goes ballistic and clears the temple courts of the vendors and money changers. That happened later in this chapter. But those people were taking advantage of the crowds of people who had come to worship at the temple during the Passover celebrations and in Jesus words they had turned the temple into a “Den of thieves.” That’s den with one “N”.
But this story seems so . . . so self-serving and out of sync with Jesus’ character.
This happens in the days leading up to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It was on the Monday following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, on what we refer to as Palm Sunday.
Sunday evening, we are told that he had left Jerusalem and went back to the village of Bethany, where he spent the night, presumably with the Apostles. We don’t know where they stayed but we do know that Jesus’ friend Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha lived in Bethany.
On Monday morning, Jesus and the apostles are making their way back to Jerusalem, which was just a couple of miles away.
As they are walking along we read that Jesus was hungry, which is a reminder of his humanity, and he notices a fig tree on the side of the road. This was probably a wild tree and the figs would be available to anyone who wanted to pick them. So Jesus saunters over to the tree, which is full of leaves and discovers that there are no figs on the tree.
And this is where it gets weird. We pick up the story in Matthew 21:19 and he (Jesus) noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up.
Now I can be a little snarly in the morning before breakfast and my first coffee, so I can almost understand the sentiment here. But Jesus is supposed to be above that.
To make this difficult story even more difficult Mark adds an additional twist in his account:
Mark 11:13 He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit.
It wasn’t even fig season, it would be like expecting to pick apples in May in the valley.
I don’t know much about figs or fig trees but I do like fig newton cookies.
The weird things you remember when you are writing a sermon.
Does anyone here remember the TV show from the late 60’s called the Ghost and Mrs Muir? It was only on for a couple of seasons.
The premise was that a young widow played by Hope Lang along with her two children, their housekeeper and their dog rent a home in Schooner Bay Maine. They soon discover that the house is haunted by the ghost of 19th century Sea Captain Daniel Gregg.
A one point Mrs Muir tells her son, Jonathon, that the Captain isn’t real he’s just a figment of their imagination. Well, the next time the Captain appears Jonathon puffs himself up and says, “You’re not real, you’re just a fig newton of my imagination.” The technical term for that was a rabbit trail and it has nothing at all to do with the message.
Back to the story about Jesus and the fig tree.
This is week three of our “That’s Weird” series here at Cornerstone, and through January and February we are stopping at various point in the bible to take a look at stories that just seem a little. . . weird. And maybe they don’t seem weird to you. Maybe the floating axe head that we looked at in week one and the talking donkey from last week seem fairly normal to you. If so, that’s weird.
But there are stories that appear in the Bible that just seem…odd. But we have to assume that those stories are there for a reason.
Remember last week I mentioned Paul’s words to Timothy from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
All scriptures, even the weird ones are inspired by God and are there for a reason.
But this story goes beyond weird, it makes us feel uncomfortable. If we take it completely at face value it shows Jesus doing something that shocks us, it just seems so contrary to his nature and his character.
First, he seems to get angry with the fig tree for no good reason. Sure, the fig tree didn’t have any figs but it wasn’t fig season it wasn’t supposed to have figs on it. He cursed it for not doing what it wasn’t supposed to be doing.
And secondly, he seems to be using his miraculous power for completely selfish reasons, he doesn’t get his own way so he curses the tree. Might expect that from Denn on a bad day, or a 4-year-old on any day, but seriously this is Jesus, the son of God.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus had always refused to use his powers for his own personal benefit.
He wouldn’t turn the stones into bread in the wilderness, even though he hadn’t eaten for forty days. He said he could call on thousands of angels to rescue him in the garden when he was arrested, but he didn’t. He never used his power for his own selfish reasons.
And yet here he uses his power to zap a tree which had disappointed him when he was hungry. That’s weird.
It is any wonder that William Barclay wrote in his Daily Study Bible, “There can be no doubt that this, without exception, is the most difficult story in the gospel narrative.”
So, what do we do with it? Well, we can simply ignore it and pretend it’s not there. And some people do that. That’s the easy way out, probably why I’ve never preached on this story.
Some commentators just flat out say it didn’t happen. Their view is that the gospel writers were mixed up and that Jesus probably saw a dead fig tree on the side of the road, told the apostles a parable about it and somehow that’s how the story evolved.
The downside of that type of response is that becomes our “go-to” reaction with anything we can’t understand or don’t like in the bible.
We see the world, and scarier still we see Christians, do that type of scriptural surgery with all kinds of social issues and the Bible.
So, they begin to accept behaviour that the Bible condemns because they ignore what the bible says about those issues. Or they’ll say, “That can’t really be what it means.”
It was Augustine who said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”
And as I said, the commentators are all over the map on this story. Researching it was kind of fun, but not real productive, much like playing golf, without the fun.
So let’s start with What I Don’t Know This will be a really short point. Well, if it was everything I don’t know it would be a really long point, but it’s just what I don’t know about this story so it’s really short.
I don’t know why Jesus cursed the tree. That’s it.
If we take the story at the literal level there is no good reason for what Jesus did.
And any preacher who says they have the answer is just bluffing.
Which lead us to What I Do Know
I do know that Jesus was without Sin
This is critical if we are going to come to some understanding of the story.
Whatever happened that day, whatever Jesus’ motives were or whatever the outcome may have been it was not a result of sinfulness. He didn’t do it in a fit of rage and he didn’t do it because he was selfish and self-serving. Because those things are sinful, and the one thing we do know is that Jesus was sinless.
We might blow it, but Jesus didn’t blow it.
John tells us in his first letter, 1 John 3:4-5 Everyone who sins is breaking God’s law, for all sin is contrary to the law of God. And you know that Jesus came to take away our sins, and there is no sin in him.
And then we are told in Hebrews 4:14-15 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.
So, while Jesus faced situations like being hungry and experienced the disappointment of discovering there were no figs on the tree, he didn’t sin because he was hungry or disappointed. Not even a little bit.
But the reality is that even after we confirm what we don’t know and discover what we do know the story is still weird.
So, here’s What I think I Know
Understand, that the theologians and Bible teachers are all over the map on this one, they all have an opinion.
And I’ve discovered that opinions are like noses, everybody has one and they all have a couple of holes in them. So, I might as well have an opinion as well.
And as Taylor Swift wrote, “We don’t need to share the same opinions as others, but we need to be respectful.”
But please understand, what I’m about to tell you is an opinion, it’s not the Gospel it’s not scripture. I can tell you for sure that the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
That’s not my opinion, that’s scripture. But this part of the message is just my opinion, and to quote William Tecumseh Sherman “I make up my opinions from facts and reasoning, and not to suit anybody but myself. If people don’t like my opinions, it makes little difference as I don’t solicit their opinions or votes.”
So, with that said, here’s what I think.
I had mentioned earlier that I don’t know very much about fig trees, but others do. And I discovered that even though there wouldn’t have been ripe figs on the tree in April that there should have been what was called paggims. And these were the buds that would eventually become figs.
Now they weren’t really edible, they would have been green and hard, but they were the promise of what was to come like apple blossoms are a promise of apples. Without these buds, there would be no figs.
Let’s go back to the story, Matthew 21:18-19 In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. . . The scripture doesn’t say there were only immature buds, it says there were only leaves. What was supposed to be there wasn’t there. Not only were there no figs, there wasn’t even a promise of figs.
I think that Jesus saw the fig tree that was in full leaf, but it didn’t even have the promise of figs and as often happened he saw the opportunity to teach his apostles.
We don’t have a record of every word or even every conversation that happened between Jesus and the 12.
As John told us at the end of his Gospel, John 21:25 Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.
With that being said, I wonder if maybe at this point Jesus reminded the 12 of the parable that is recorded in Luke 13:6-9 He also spoke this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, ‘Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?’ But he answered and said to him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.’ ”
We don’t know, we can only speculate. But if that was the case there is a lesson to be learned from this weird little story.
The Leaves Don’t Count if There’s No Fruit
And that is spelled out for us in Luke 6:43-44 “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs never grow on thornbushes, nor grapes on bramble bushes.
And Jesus wasn’t talking about trees, he was talking about those who would choose to follow him.
The writer Charles Lamb was describing a man who had been a friend of his since their school years, and he wrote “In his life there were three stages. When he was young, people said of him, “He will do something.” As he grew older and did nothing, they said of him, “He could do something if he tried.” Towards the end they said of him, “He might have done something if he had tried.” Maybe you’ve met Lamb’s friend. His was a life defined by leaves, not fruit. Could of, would of, should of.
Jesus’ brother James reminds us in James 4:17 Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.
Which is kind of scary and has all kinds of ramifications about not living up to our potential. But it has to go further than that.
This is a spiritual statement, when we know what we ought to do as a follower of Jesus Christ and we don’t do it. That is sin.
And conversely when we know what we ought not do as a follower of Jesus Christ and we do it, that is sin as well. Both of those actions are both called disobedience. And that means we disobey or we don’t obey.
And sometimes when you challenge people on their behaviour they will get all indignant and demand “Who are you to judge me?” or will say “the bible says ‘not to judge’”.
Actually Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 5:12 It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning.
And when Jesus was talking about false teachers he told us in Matthew 7:16-20 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
And so Jesus’ reaction when he came to a fig tree that was full of leaves but didn’t even offer the promise of figs, remember there didn’t appear to be any buds, was to condemn it. His words were “May you never bear fruit again!” And we are told that the fig tree withered up.
As Christ followers, it’s not enough to just have pretty leaves. To put on an external show of our righteousness. Jesus talked about that when he spoke about people who were like bowls that were clean on the outside and dirty on the inside and caskets that were so neat and tidy on the outside but inside they were full of death and decay.
You know what he called people like that right? Yeah, hypocrites.
So what fruit are we supposed to exhibit, what is the fruit in our lives that will truly identify us as Christians?
The fruit of love. John 13:35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
That’s almost a no brainer. It was obviously something that stuck with John because he would later write in 1 John 4:11-12 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.
What does it say to people when we claim to follow the God of love but exhibit very little love in our lives? Kind of like a fig tree with nothing but leaves.
But it’s not just about love. Jesus took this a step further and tied love to the fruit of obedience. John 14:15 “If you love me, obey my commandments.” Where do you find his commandments? In the Bible. I Talked a bit about this last week, the only way you will know what’s in the bible is to read the bible.
But here is a condensed version of the type of behaviour that’s expected of us as followers of Jesus. You can start here until you read the whole story Ephesians 4:21-32 Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the devil. If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.
And the fruit that you bear when you love and live like that will ultimately be other Christ followers. So, here’s the question. If someone was going to define you by your fruit, how would they define you?