Matt 21: 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
The most important thing that happened to me in high school was that I read the gospels. They were challenging and disturbing and inspiring, and I haven’t gotten over it. I discovered, too, that reading the gospels was a doorway into a thousand fascinating conversations that have been going on for the past 2,000 years. Exhilarating.
Later, sometime around my junior year, I came across Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and read it with considerable enjoyment and some disturbance — Russell’s prose invites to discussion and debate, and his take on religion (though often irritatingly glib) was different from any I’d encountered before. In the course of the eponymous essay (you can read it here), he comments in passing on the “Jesus blasted the fig” story, and he is not impressed:
This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.
Was this, as Russell suggested, another example of Jesus’ increasingly erratic or deluded self-conception? Russell got me thinking, but he did not disengage me from the Gospel story. I did worry about this anecdote, though. It did seem odd, and indeed out of character for Jesus.
After all, one thing that is quite clear from the Gospel record is that Jesus was aware of seasonal and agricultural cycles. And if nothing else, he knew the Psalms well, and understood that a healthy tree “putteth forth his fruit in his season” (Ps. 1). This is not someone who, itinerating across the land, would imagine, nor expect, that figs were available when they were not. I have concluded that the gospel writers quite misinterpreted the whole event.
Others have tried to make sense of this story, in ways that show more ingenuity than insight, as I read them. William Telford, in expounding this passage, quotes a scholar as arguing that “In symblic commentary upon the Jewish expectation [of the messianic age’s beginning in springtime, signalled by the fig’s blossoming], Jesus withers the tree, so indicating that the Jewish view of the New Exodus and Messianic Age is not to be.” Ugh. Quite aside from the strong supercessionist overtones, this seems to me to be bad exegesis (“not even wrong”), as there is nothing in the text that suggests that Jesus had any such thing in mind. Telford comments that this among other “solutions” to the problematical fig seem focused on the dogmatic aim of “removing the blot on Jesus’ character.” I agree.
A quick search of other commentaries produces other examples in which the problem of this blasted fig is solved by attributing to Jesus some intent to comment on the state of the people of Israel. “What Jesus is doing is pronouncing on the already sealed fate of the nation…he is lamenting over the sorry condition of his nation that is bent on despising God’s gracious purpose and will inevitably suffer for it in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.” (Ralph Martin)
Now, it seems to me that Martin (and others he refers to) have this much right, that this is a prophetic sign, rather that simple petulance. Yet it cannot have the kinds of meaning attributed to it — grand statements about the fate of the apostate nation, or what have you. For one thing, Mark (ch 11) and Matthew (21: 18-22) actually supply comments by Jesus. The disciplines, at the sight of the tree blasted by a word, are all “Gee whiz, that’s amazing!”, but Jesus says, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea,’ it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
Nothing there about his people not receiving him, nor the fall of Jerusalem.
Yet part of the reason the incident is so puzzling is that the rationale supplied by the narrative is sort of irrelevant. The teaching on faith that can move a mountain (an example of the rhetorical exaggeration which Jesus often uses) occurs elsewhere in the gospels, unconnected with any fig trees (though in Luke 17:6 the faith is in fact transplanting a mulberry tree into the sea). As Harvey’s Companion to the New Testament comments, the sayings attached to the blasted fig “were presumably remembered separately,” to be deployed by the gospel-writer as seemed best to him, and not originally linked to the fig tree. (I will return to the mulberry and the fig in my next post.) In any case, the commenters do not seem to me to “unscrew the inscrutable.” I don’t know that I can, but I here offer my mite.
A note on the context. First, I would note that in both Matthew and Mark, this incident occurs just after (in the same chapter as) two other striking events: the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” and the driving out of the money-changers from the Temple. Both of these public demonstrations are intentionally saturated with symbolic elements — relating to the key concerns of idolatry, the kingship of God, and the way in which Jesus taught the kingdom is to be proclaimed and manifested. Taken together with these prior events, the fig-tree incident may be seen as a third prophetic sign.
A note on prophetic signs. The “prophetic signs” of (for example) Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are sometimes interpreted as “nonverbal proclamation,” but they are very often accompanied by words, in which the prophet interprets his action. (See here for an earlier post exploring this a bit more.) The act gets attention, and grips the imagination; the preaching then, as it were, enters into the breach that the act has created in the wall of habit. Jesus understood this and used it powerfully — including in the great prophetic sign of Calvary.
So what? How to take this blasted fig? The fig tree incident takes place towards the beginning of the final, intensifying phase of Jesus’ teaching. He has come to Jerusalem in the season leading up to Passover, the festival of liberation, conscious that danger is growing. These chapters have a compelling narrative momentum, with Jesus driving forward the core of his teachings, his revelation, about the nature of God’s rule, and his radical understanding of the process by which we are to be freed in and through the God who is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, whose fellowship is with the outcast, the unprivileged, and the teachable, compassionate, child-like peacemakers. An essential characteristic of his teaching is surprise. All through these final chapters, we hear again and again that God’s time is not our own, that God’s presence offering liberation will come, not when we expect it, but when the Holy One moves. Keep awake! for you do not know on what day your Lord is to come! (Matt. 24:42, NEV)
The message is epitomized, perhaps, by the parable of the “Wise and foolish virgins” (here, the KJV):
25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 25:2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 25:3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 25:4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps. 25:5 When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 25:7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 25:8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 25:9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 25:10 But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 25:11 Later,the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!” 25:12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I do not know you!’ 25:13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.
This, I take it, is the message of the blasted fig: Of course, it seems illogical that I should be concerned now to be bearing fruit. I’m not ready, and I’ve got nothing to offer. Just wait! Next week, next month, next year, next life, I’ll have something ready!
Christ, though, is here and at work, and expects us to offer our mite, employ our talents (no matter how poor we think them), to give when asked (just as we are to ask in our turn), to live generously as way opens— generous with our compassion, with our prayer, with our service. This is, indeed the end times, because for each of us “there is no time but this present. ” And there is one more fig, which think belongs just here:
Learn a lesson from the fig tree: When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you may know that the end is near, at the every door….But about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven; not even the Son; only the Father. (Matt. 24:32-36, NEV).