Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Whither Holy Week's Withered Fig Tree?
In 1978, my family moved from an overgrown old farm in upstate New York to suburban Texas.
Mom and Dad purchased a 1950's-vintage home between Dallas and Fort Worth featuring an oversized backyard full of vegetable beds and flower boxes. Constructed out of wood and brick, they'd been developed by the previous homeowner, an amateur yet prolific gardener. Since Dad had kept a modest garden on our property in rural New York State, it seemed as though our new home in urbanized Texas provided an ideal continuity for growing some of our own food.
Unfortunately for us, however, growing food in Texas proved to be much more difficult and time-consuming than it had been back in the Northeast. Whereas sunlight was a more precious commodity up there, down here, its incessant abundance can be a liability. Rainwater is also scarcer here, which means one has to work harder at manually watering one's plants, and paying for the privilege, too. Rainwater, after all, is free.
At any rate, along with the vegetable beds and flower boxes in our Texas backyard, the former owner left us some medium-sized fig trees. Unfortunately for those figs, however, none of us really cared for their taste or texture, and the trees eventually died through a combination of our apathy towards figs in general, and our lack of enthusiasm when it came to learning how to keep them alive.
During Holy Week, I've generally been as ambivalent about the account of Christ cursing the fig tree as our family was towards those fig trees we'd inherited. And it seems I'm not the only one. Americans don't eat lots of figs, they're not a prominent part of our culture, and we North American evangelicals tend to skip over Holy Week's fig event as we concentrate on Christ evicting the moneychangers from the temple, the woman with the expensive perfume, the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ's trial, and His execution.
Fig event? Do I need to jog your memory, as I needed to mine?
We're told in Matthew 21 and Mark 11 that, as He's walking towards Jerusalem from where He and His disciples are staying in Bethany, Christ sees a fig tree in full leaf. He's hungry, so He goes over to get some of its fruit, but once He gets to the tree, he sees that it doesn't have fruit after all. Christ proclaims that no one will ever eat fruit from that tree again, and the next day, when the disciples walk with Him past the same tree, they notice it is dead.
Peter exclaims to Christ about how uncanny it is that the same green, leafy tree Christ had cursed the previous day is now withered to its roots. And Christ says, "have faith in God."
Huh? What makes this anything more than an odd vignette from God's holy pre-crucifixion narrative?
It doesn't help us in our post-Modern, post-Christian culture that figs are a misunderstood fruit. Shucks; technically, figs aren't even a fruit - they're a "false fruit," or a flower, since they comprise the sexual organ of the fig plant. There is a little hole in the underside of the fig fruit/flower through which special insects crawl to pollinate the hidden flower inside.
Not only that, but in various cultures across other parts of the world, where figs are popular - particularly in that iconic "10-40 window" encompassing most Middle Eastern and East Asian people groups - figs can represent sexuality. And do you think it's mere happenstance that Adam and Eve stitched together fig leaves to cover their strategic anatomy after they'd sinned in the Garden of Eden?
As food, figs provide excellent nutrition, and some people truly enjoy how figs taste. Some cultures have experimented with figs and the fruit's unique milky sap to exploit their medicinal properties, which include soothing toothaches, curing sore throats, and treating warts and sores in the mouth. Figs also make great natural laxatives, in case you're interested.
So, what do we have so far? Figs are nutritious, healthy, and sexual. Not exactly the mix we're used to considering during Holy Week, is it?
Where's the theology in all of this?
Let's start with the fact that Christ expected edible fruit from a fig tree in full leaf. Theoretically, at least, we accept that He was justified in cursing it when He discovered it had no fruit, but that doesn't automatically make sense to me. I don't necessarily associate a plant being in full leaf with also having ripe fruit. How does that correlate with the fact that Christ had a legitimate expectation that wasn't met, and that He had a right to do what He did? Otherwise, it could look as though He was having a bit of a temper tantrum. Yet we know that Christ is pure, sinless, and, while He had a righteous anger - as displayed with the moneychangers' tables in the temple - He didn't have a temper.
In Biblical times, most species of figs were not in season until late summer or early fall. So Passover, the time during which Holy Week takes place, was not necessarily a season for figs. However, certain species of figs can produce two yields per year: a first of lesser bounty, that could have ripened around Passover (depending on when Passover occurred the year of Christ's resurrection); and a second of greater bounty in the early fall. So it could have been an early season for early figs, and some scholars guesstimate that what little fruit it might have produced may have already been plucked.
Still, it's not that simple. For Christ to have been so angry as to curse the tree, it is also speculated that the tree itself was barren, even though it had leaves. Apparently, it is not uncommon to have fig trees start out with great promise, and somehow manage to go through several years of leafy growth without producing fruit. Remember, however, that with a fig tree, the fruit is also the flower. That fleshy part Christ was hoping to eat is the sexual and reproductive system of the fig plant. And, as you might imagine, a tree can go only so long with malfunctioning reproductive organs (not bearing fruit) before it dies.
The variables continue. In some species of fig trees, their fruit appears before the leaves, creating an odd spectacle of plump, colorful figs attached to bare sticks. On these fig trees, being in full leaf promises a bountiful harvest, with the green leaves advertising fruit that has already become ripe and ready for eating. This would most likely have been the fig species Christ saw, and from which He was expecting to satisfy His appetite. It still doesn't exactly fit with the season for when most figs produce their best fruit, but since this story is included in God's holy Word, it's there for a purpose.
Confused yet? Bored? Wondering what the big point of all this is? What is the purpose for having a barren fig tree get cursed by Christ mere days before His crucifixion?
Fig-uring it Out
Well, how you interpret the fig tree story depends on how closely you choose to associate it with eschatology, and Christ's warning regarding the destruction of the temple. His warning comes just a few hours after Peter notices the fig tree had withered, as Christ is leaving the temple with His disciples, and they're commenting on how impressive its buildings are.
Now, eschatology, as you may know, is the study of end-times prophecy. Are you suddenly really uncomfortable? So am I. Theologians who love to delve into the possibilities see lots to discuss in this link between the withered fig tree and the nation of Israel. Meanwhile, I'm neither a theologian, nor am I particularly curious about end-times theology, since about all we really need to know is that Christ will come "like a thief in the night." Plus, I tend to believe God provided all people groups in all nations with His Word because it is relevant to all of us. Whether we're an expert in eschatology or not.
So, call me a chicken if you will - after all, it is almost Passover - but I don't want to get mired down in eschatology. I don't believe it's wrong to derive a personal application from the story of the withered fig tree. And that personal application probably seems obvious by now.
The species of fig Christ hopes to enjoy on His walk between Bethany and Jerusalem offers a hypocritical, false, and misleading promise of fruit. And what does the Bible repeatedly describe as the product of Christlikeness in our lives? Fruit. In other words, Christ curses the fig tree because it appeared to offer fruit, but it didn't. Practically speaking, it was a fig tree in looks only. It didn't have anything to offer the Son of God.
Ouch. Are you suddenly uncomfortable again? I know that hypocrisy is something I'm guilty of. At least, from time to time. In fact, the only times I can be confident that I'm modeling an honest faith in Christ is when I'm learning to cultivate the Fruit of the Spirit in my life. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
When Christ sees me, I want Him to see not just leaves, and appearances, and me doing churchy things, and saying all the right things, and protecting widows and orphans, and driving the speed limit. I want Him to be able to pluck ripe, delicious, healthy, sustaining, and even healing fruit from me. Whenever He wants. Whether I'm supposed to be in season or not.
After all, only a few days later in the week, He would die so that I could have life, and have it abundantly. Abundantly? Okay, so I recently "came out of the closet" regarding my clinical depression, and I wouldn't exactly describe my life as abundant. But maybe it's not supposed to be abundant with fun, and luxury, and physical comforts. Instead, I believe it's supposed to be abundant with fruit.
So I won't wither up and die.
This is my faith in God.