Just like yesterday’s Gospel reading was troubling and difficult to understand, so is today’s gospel reading of Jesus cursing the fig tree.
The story of the fig tree had troubled me for many years. What did this tree do to deserve being cursed?? Actually it withers and dies. It wasn’t even the season for producing figs, and yet Jesus blames it for not having figs?! Does Jesus lose his cool?
The only valid explanation came from one of my professors in Israel – and the explanation came due to a mountain, not a shriveled tree. I remember us standing at the Herodium, a man-made mountain that the Romans used as a fortress in Jesus’ time. And it is a huge pile of moved dirt, let me tell you. Everyone in our group gasped and said, “This MOUNTAIN got here artificially?” Yes, basketful by basketful, by slaves.
Well, as the professor explained, Jesus and the disciples were traveling from Bethany to Jerusalem, passing through Bethpage. On that route, the Herodium is visible. And so when Jesus said, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart…,” it was as if Jesus was saying, “If you only had faith like the Romans, you could move mountains like them.” It was an insult.
Jesus was not mad at the tree, but mad at the people, making a point about “things coming to pass”, prayer, and faith. The tree was left as a visible reminder. Interestingly enough, not too long from that time, he would travel the same road on his way to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Talk about things coming to pass! I wonder if on passing the tree on Palm Sunday he turned to the disciples and said, “Hey guys…remember what I said: Have faith in God. I’m withering next, but don’t you worry. YOU WILL be moving more than just mountains in my absence.”
Scripture is so weird sometimes, and that’s why I like it. It challenges me and causes me to think deeply about my life. The fig tree for instance….there are signs in my life which remind me to have faith in God. And I am not talking about grand signs like eclipses, or the Lord’s Supper, or the like. I am talking about withered signs.
Oklahomans know a little bit about withered signs – from usually high summer temperatures, to the destruction of tornadoes or hail. From tree limbs down, to roofs blown off, to water main breaks, we are often reminded that the things in life are just transitory. And they are just things. It helps me to focus on that which is truly important – that which does not pass away – the Word of God.