Holy Week: Meditation 3

One of the strangest events of holy week is the cursing of the fig tree (Matthew 21, Mark 11).
F. F. Bruce offered this explanation (from Hard Sayings of the Bible):

Was it not unreasonable to curse the tree for being fruitless when, as Mark expressly says, “it was not the season for figs”? The problem is most satisfactorily cleared up in a discussion called “The Barren Fig Tree” published many years ago by W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland minister in Palestine under the British mandatory regime. He pointed out first the time of year at which the incident is said to have occurred (if, as is probable, Jesus was crucified on April 6th, A.D. 30, the incident occurred during the first days of April). “Now,” wrote Christie, “the facts connected with the fig tree are these. Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with [this], and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grown to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off.” These precursors of the true fig are called taqsh in Palestinian Arabic. Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any taqsh, that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found “nothing but leaves” – leaves without any taqsh- he knew that “it was an absolutely hopeless, fruitless fig tree” and said as much.

In this sense, the parable becomes a dramatic enactment of Jesus’ parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6 ff), and reinforces his similar agricultural metaphor from John 15. The point? I don’t like boiling down a parable or story into a point – but one dimension of it, I think, is this: if a tree doesn’t produce good fruit, after enough second chances and heroic efforts at renewing it, something more fruitful will take its place.
So in economics, capitalism proved more fruitful than feudalism; then communism tried to improve upon capitalism but eventually proved less fruitful. Now, capitalism itself is struggling to correct itself and the question is open whether it can adapt to environmental limits and the corruptions of unaccountable power – or whether it will self-destruct by producing good fruit for too few and bad fruit for too many. In terms of government, warlords and monarchies came and (largely) went, as did segregation and apartheid, giving way to more just, intelligent, and fruitful ways of organizing ourselves. In religion, indulgences came and went; crusades and conquistadores and colonizers came and went; the defense of slavery and racism came and went, and so on. But the forms that remain today, the fig tree tells us, must pass the fruit test, or they too will pass away.

Lord, help us to affirm our loyalty, not to this or that tree, but to the fruit they are to bear … not to this or that wineskin, but to the wine they are to carry … Help us not mistake style and appearance for substance and essence, activity (like growing leaves and branches) for fruitfulness (producing fruit).
And as individuals, Lord, even now, we yield ourselves to you, to be tended and watered in our souls, to be pruned in our character for greater strength, so that we can bear good fruit in season. We know this holy week that a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die in order to produce a crop; help us to willingly accept the cutbacks, defeats, critiques and setbacks that are necessary for us to be ever more fruitful in your resurrecting grace.
What fruit are you looking for in humanity, Lord? We hear your Spirit’s reply – that you have shown us what is good, what you require:
That we do justice.
That we love kindness.
That we walk in meekness before you.
So let our lives be like fruitful trees, Lord, each branch heavy with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. We don’t just want to take up space in your garden. We want to bear good fruit, bearing witness to your gracious goodness. Amen.