The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 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.” And his disciples heard him say it…
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-25
If the fig tree could sing, I think it might pick the line from the 1980’s Pet Shop Boys hit, featuring Dusty Springfield crooning “What have I done to deserve this?” “What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?” Good question. And it would seem from first glance that the fig tree’s only fault is standing in the way of a hungry Jesus. After all, it isn’t actually the season for full-blown figs. The equivalent might be coming home ravenous to find that the Crockpot hasn’t warmed up to cook the mac n’ cheese- because you forgot to turn it on- so you cuss at the stupid thing for not doing its job.
Strange? I think so. And it is enough to roil the anger of any environmentalist. What is Jesus doing here?
It helps to know that the Old Testament often employs the image of a fig tree to describe the people of Israel and its withering as God’s judgment. So in the book of Micah, for example, God laments that when God comes to Israel looking for “good fruit” to eat, in the way of a life of Spirit-filled rightness with God, God finds none: “What misery is mine!,” God exclaims. “I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. This kind of imagery about barren fig trees proliferates in the Old Testament- and Jesus uses it to tell his own parable about a fig tree that does not produce fruit and is therefore “cut down” (Luke 13:6-9). It also helps to know that fig trees not in season for bearing fruit can still indicate by their leaves, or lack thereof, whether they will bear fruit in season. Chances are, this fig tree was not sporting much in the way of foliage.
It is possible that Jesus like any good teacher, then, is teaching the disciples with a hands-on experiment. The lesson? “If you want to know what happens when God comes back to find nothing in the way of spiritual fruit, fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control among those who claim to follow God, this is what happens,” Jesus seems to be saying.
There is a subtle but important difference, though, between condemning a fruitless fig tree to death and causing an otherwise fruitful tree to die. There is undoubtedly foreboding judgment in Jesus’ words here for those of us who belong to the church. God will return to judge God’s people first based on what we have produced in the way of the fruit of the Spirit. But that judgment does not comprise some sort of “double predestination” by which God at the beginning of time dispenses a certain number of “fig trees” and then destines a certain number to wither in hell. God’s judgment is primarily one of truth-telling- it is naming in the light of day and in the fullness of time the life we have chosen to live.
This reality scares me. But it also invites me to recognize that the one doing the judging is also the one who goes to great lengths to help me bear fruit. By sending His Spirit. And promising that we can do many things with faith the size of a mustard seed. And making a world in which new life somehow manages to inch its way in even after death. Even after our own best efforts to do good fail and wither on the vine.
What is most remarkable and life giving is that Jesus goes to the cross knowing full well that he lives in a world where fig trees don’t bear fruit. In fact I suspect He goes to the cross because of that. And when we go there with him, by the power of His Spirit, we, too, can glimpse the first new sprigs and buds of life on the other side.
This concludes our “Weird Jesus Sayings” series. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll keep coming back to visit for our upcoming series on “Jesus Epithets.” You’ll also get to indulge- or grin and bear?- some of my own experimental engagement with feminist theology in an upcoming graduate seminar taught by Emory religion professor, Wendy Farley. All of this and more in the weeks to come! Thanks for walking with me.