This snapshot of Jesus entering Jerusalem is so weird! What on earth is happening here?!? Jesus is mad at a fig tree because it doesn’t bear fruit when he wants it to? And so he curses it and it withers up and dies. Literally, the most petty-sounding, two-year-old-tantrum thing ever. At first glance, truly it seems out of character for Jesus.
I have learned over the past year an overwhelming amount about ancient Jewish culture and context, and more than anything, it is starkly apparent that they think differently in the East than we do in the West. We western-world thinkers are scientific to the core, reveling in definition and fact. Eastern thinkers are so very different! They are picture peoples. Where we ask for definition, they ask for metaphor. Like I taught my youth group this weekend in our Snapshot of Judaism service, we explain God as all-knowing, all-powerful, omniscient, omnipotent, etc… Jews explain God as Shepherd and Rock. Their pictures bring forth emotion and relationship centered in the heart, where as our definitions hit squarely in the brain. Neither are wrong–just very different.
That being said, when we see these crazy pictures of Jesus which don’t make sense, we should be looking around for the previous and/or subsequent teachings and ask ourselves what picture is he trying to give. There, most often, lies the answer.
In the narrative of the fruitless fig tree from Mark 11:12-14, the actions of Jesus are explained by the subsequent events. Jesus curses the fig tree because of its lack of fruit, and cursed it to never have fruit again. Then he walks straight into the temple of Jerusalem and cleansed it of the diseased fruit which had taken it over: money-changers, salesmen offering pigeons like thieves, priests and scribes. Each of these in the temple were defiling God’s tabernacle and turning it into a marketplace with outrageously priced sacrificial animals (Mark 11:15-19).
The temple was the place where people traveled long distances to sacrifice their offerings to God; it was a place people came to be near His presence and revel in His glory; it was a place where people traveled to pray to their God, while wrapped in His loving arms. And instead, they arrived and found a chaotic marketplace, where they may not even be able to afford the most basic animal to sacrifice. Those in charge of shepherding God’s people into His presence were the ones actively keeping them from it. Jesus came in, saw not just the lack of good fruit from God’s chosen, but that it was diseased fruit that spiritually hurt all who drew near. Like the fig tree, he cleansed it and cursed it.
In the next portion of the text (Mark 11:20-26), the disciples walk back by the fig tree which Jesus had earlier cursed, and it was indeed withered and dead. Jesus responds, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” In other words, if you have active faith in God, you will BEAR GOOD FRUIT.
The fig tree was not cursed out of petulance. It was cursed to give the disciples a picture. What happens to trees who do not bear fruit of God? They are cursed and cut down. But those who have faith, will bear good fruit, and God will bless all his or her actions.
The fruitless fig tree stands today as both a warning and reminder. Over and over again, Jesus said that he would know his people by the fruit they bear (Matthew 12:33). Maintaining the imagery of harvest, Jesus switches the metaphor to grain, and teaches that those seeds which produced good grain would be stored and the seeds which produced weeds would be thrown into the fire (Matthew 13:24-30). Again, we see Jesus reiterate this idea with a metaphor about sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. No matter which picture Jesus chooses to use — fruit, grain, or animals — the warning and reminder is the same: bear good fruit or you will be cursed.
We Christians have done a terrible job throughout history of remembering this. We teach that all you need to do is to “welcome Jesus into your heart and ask forgiveness,” and you will be saved. That is the starting point for all of us: bowing the knee to the King. But it cannot stop there! Jesus very clearly told us we would be known by our fruit. If our hearts are his, we will bear good fruit. Empty words hold no roots, and no fruit is found there. Jesus demands lives of abundant fruit.
What fruit has been harvested in your own life? God is so gracious and today His mercies are brand-spankin-new. Start afresh today. Bend the knee, give your heart, your will, your words, and your actions to your King, and watch as He pours life into the roots of your spirit. You won’t be able to help but overflow with good fruit. Amen.