Dry Formalism

In Matthew 21, we find a strange story of Jesus pronouncing a curse on a fig tree. He was hungry, and “seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves” (vs 18-19). Nothing unusual about this. I have two fig trees in my backyard that have leaves only, and no figs. But what Jesus does next shocked his disciples, and still puzzles readers today. “And he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once” (vs 19).

Did Jesus do this because he wanted to impress his disciples with his divine power, or was there a deeper lesson in the cursing of the fig tree? Jesus’ preferred method of teaching people about the kingdom of God was parables. In most cases, he shared a story or a metaphor that people could relate to in order to illustrate deeper spiritual lessons. In the case of the cursed fig tree, Jesus was communicating lessons through an acted parable. 

So what (or who) did the fruitless fig tree represent? The context of this incident is Jesus overturning tables in the Jerusalem temple and driving out those who were selling sacrificial animals. This exacerbated what had already been an ongoing conflict with “the chief priests and scribes.” Did the fruitless fig tree represent the religious leaders of the Jewish people? If so, in what way?

Remember, the fig tree was full of leaves. From a distance, it appeared to have figs to satisfy a person's hunger. It was only as Jesus drew closer that he realized that it was fruitless. This seems to be a fitting representation of what Paul referred to as people who had “the appearance [“form,”  NKJV] of godliness,” but lack the transformative power of God (2 Tim 3:5). The leaves provide the fig tree with the appearance of a healthy tree, but that is all it has, is an appearance. A truly healthy tree will bear fruit. A truly healthy spiritual life will bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

Jesus told another parable that further illustrates this. In Luke 10, he spoke of a man who “fell among robbers” while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was “stripped” and beaten and left “half dead” (vs 30). A priest and a Levite, according to the story, “was going down that road,” but “passed by on the other side” without making the least bit of effort to help the dying man (vs 31-33). There is no question that these two individuals were religious. They had “a form of godliness.” If they were fruit trees, they were full of leaves. But apparently, they lacked what is most essential in the life of one who worships God—love and compassion towards their neighbor. This is the fruit that was lacking on the fig-less tree. This is why it was cursed. 

What about you? Does your life display the fruit of the Spirit?

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