“He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again!’ And his disciples heard it.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
When was the last time you threw a fit about something? What sparked that? I remember going on a mountain getaway with some friends several years ago. We were cooking a Stouffer’s lasagna for dinner, and it fell to me to get it out of the oven. Somehow, I tipped over the pan all over the oven door, basically ruining dinner for the six of us. In the moment I was so embarrassed and angry that I threw an oven mitt across the little kitchen. Fortunately, the meal was salvageable. It was my little freak out that did more to put a damper on the evening than the messy meal. Talk about an awkward moment. I was lucky to have a gracious wife and friends. Well, this morning, I want to look with you at a time when Jesus seemed to throw a fit.
The moment of Jesus’ big reveal had come and gone. It hadn’t gone like any of His followers expected it to go. Rather than doing anything dramatic, Jesus basically walked into the city…and walked out again. As they prepared the next morning to go into the city from Bethany, the suburb where Jesus stayed during the week, the disciples really didn’t know what to expect anymore. You’d have thought they’d have gotten used to that by now.
As Jesus began making the journey into the city with them the next morning, He saw a fig tree in the distance. There was nothing particularly special about this fig tree except that it had really pretty foliage. It looked like a tree that was in full fruit-bearing glory from a distance. And Jesus was hungry. So, He went to get a snack. When He got closer to the tree, though, it was bare. Not a single piece of fruit was to be found on it.
Now, this is where things start to get interesting. When Jesus saw the tree was empty, how do you suppose He reacted? Did He piously opine something like, “Oh dear. This simply won’t do. I guess we’ll let God provide us a meal in another fashion.”? Perhaps the Jesus of religious imagery would have responded that way. The real Jesus angrily fired off what I read for you just a second ago: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!”
I’ll be honest: I find it really hard to believe that Jesus reacted like this. That’s what I would have done. I would have gotten to the tree, noticed the lack of fruit, and muttered something like, “Stupid tree.” I feel like Jesus shouldn’t have done things like I would do them now. What on earth are we to make of this?
It gets even weirder, though. Mark specifically notes that the disciples all heard Jesus say what He did to the tree. In the moment it feels like a bit of an odd observation. I mean, I’m sure it was awkward for the disciples to hear Jesus respond so un-Jesus-like to the empty tree, but that doesn’t seem to warrant any special notice like this. It doesn’t seem to warrant it until we read a few more verses in the chapter and find the rest of the story. When the group was heading back to Bethany after spending the day in the temple, they passed the same tree. It may have been the same tree, but it didn’t look the same anymore. Now, instead of being covered with beautiful foliage, the tree had withered, from the roots up, and was completely dead.
That’s right: The tree was completely dead, withered away from the roots up. Now, we’ll talk later about the conversation their discovery of the now dead tree prompts between Jesus and the disciples, but for now I just want to try and wrap our minds around the fact of it. Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree. The fig tree was empty, so He cursed it. The tree was later found completely dead. In other words, Jesus threw a fit and cursed a tree to death because it didn’t have fruit on it when He wanted something to eat. Really? I mean, really?!?
Let’s just call things what they are. This story and its conclusion a few verses over is really bizarre. This looks like a completely self-indulgent use of Jesus’ divine abilities which seems wildly out-of-character for Him. Nowhere else in the Gospels does anything even remotely like this happen. Was this just the stress of the week ahead of Him working itself out? What did this tree ever do except to not have fruit when He wanted it. Some commentators have reflected that this wasn’t the season for the fig tree to be bearing fruit anyway which just makes the whole episode even stranger. And, when Jesus unpacks what happened for the disciples, His explanation doesn’t seem to fit the circumstances at all.
This is one of those places where the text doesn’t answer our questions. We’re just left with this and that’s that. There is not a single clue here pointing us in the direction of an interpretation. Luke and John don’t even include the story in their Gospels, and Matthew presents it pretty much as Mark does except he says the fig tree withered up and died on the spot rather than being discovered later (which was probably a condensing the real version Mark presents for the sake of storytelling). In other words, huh?
Well, here’s one thought on what to make of this. It’s not much, and it may be reading into the text, grasping at a loose straw, hoping for something that fits, but here it is all the same. Jesus was offering the disciples a picture of the Pharisees He would soon confront. They had all the foliage to suggest health and life, but there was no fruit on their branches. They played the part of the faithful God-follower beautifully. They kept the Law publicly. They offered the people a wonderful example of what a life dedicated to the Lord looked like. They checked the right political boxes. Everything looked good from the outside in. But there was no fruit coming from their lives. They didn’t meaningfully encourage anyone to follow their example. In fact, they tended to make life more difficult for the average person than not. Worse than this, perhaps, was the fact that they were actively leading the people to follow in their fruitless direction by virtue of the glamor and pomp of their great foliage. They had the look, but without any fruit, they were really worthless and would be judged as lacking. Their roots were bad and this would eventually result in a withering of their seemingly beautiful lives.
Let’s take the lesson here for what it is. The real mark of faithfulness to God is not our moral uprightness and sterling religiosity. It is the fruit we produce. And what is this fruit? Paul spelled it out for the Galatian churches: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If our lives aren’t bearing these fruits everywhere we go, no matter how good they may look from the outside, they are dead and dying on the inside. A tree that doesn’t bear fruit eventually gets cut down because it is worthless. Let us work with the Spirit to make sure we are not just window-dressing followers of Jesus. Let us make certain that we are bearing the fruit that leads to life, not just for ourselves, but to nourish and enrich the lives of the people around us.