Of Barren Trees and Overturned Tables

This Easter, I’ve found myself more focused on Jesus Christ and His actions during His last week on Earth. I’ve been examining them in order to glean meaning from each rather than take in the week as a collective whole. Yes, the trial, death, burial, and resurrection are indeed the most important events, but I’m coming to see that every word Christ uttered and every action that He took was meant for some purpose or to teach some lesson we must recognize and understand.

For instance, on Holy Monday, the day after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, the apostles describe Jesus performing two specific actions, both of which are of note.

    1. Cursing the fig tree that has nothing but leaves on it.
    2. Driving money lenders from the temple to cleanse it for prayer.

The Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11: 12-14)

On their return to Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry and approaches a fig tree growing alongside the road. He approaches it and finds that is bears only leaves but no evidence of figs. He then says, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again,” and the tree withers and dies. This seems fairly harsh, especially in light of the evidence in the book of Matthew that “it was not the season for figs.” After all, how can a tree be expected to produce if its season is not yet come? I went in search of a discussion on this very topic and found the following in an article by F.F. Bruce in his book Hard Sayings of the Bible:

Was it not unreasonable to curse the tree for being fruitless when, as Mark expressly says, “it was not the season for figs”? The problem is most satisfactorily cleared up in a discussion called “The Barren Fig Tree” published many years ago by W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland minister in Palestine under the British mandatory regime. He pointed out first the time of year at which the incident is said to have occurred (if, as is probable, Jesus was crucified on April 6th, A.D. 30, the incident occurred during the first days of April). “Now,” wrote Christie, “the facts connected with the fig tree are these. Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with [this], and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grown to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off.” These precursors of the true fig are called taqsh  in Palestinian Arabic. Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any taqsh,  that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found “nothing but leaves” – leaves without any taqsh– he knew that “it was an absolutely hopeless, fruitless fig tree” and said as much.

With a little research, the event becomes something both understandable and relevant. Jesus knew that this tree in particular bore no signs of the eventual fruit it should produce. In essence, it looked right and smelled right with its bright leaves absorbing sun and bringing people from the road to gather food from it. However, despite all the promises it made, it would produce nothing tangible and edible, nothing to feed or sustain a hungry man. As a result, Jesus curses the tree, which withers immediately.

When returning to Bethany that same evening, the apostles notice that the same tree Jesus cursed that morning has withered away. In fact, it has “dried up from the roots.” They press Him for answers as to why this is so, and He uses the moment for their edification and ours. I’ll use the passage from Matthew to illustrate this as the text is more detailed.

Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive. (Matthew 21: 20-22)

The first message is fairly obvious–pray knowing the seemingly impossible will be done with God, and that is exactly what will occur. We have a mighty power to call upon, one that quite literally move mountains if we ask for it earnestly, expecting whatever we ask of God will be done. I saw a sign recently that said something to the effect of, “Faith isn’t praying know that God can but that God will.” Simplified, yes, but there is a marked difference between the two words I’ve italicized. And I think that’s where Christians are still falling short. We don’t see those things we ask for come to fruition in a time span we find acceptable or the way we expect, and we begin to assume that God doesn’t answer our requests. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The second lesson I take from this comes when I pair it with the second action Jesus took on this day, the turning over of tables in the temple. The fig tree has not, and by all indications will not, produce fruit. Hence, it is cut off. Can the same be said for the fruitless church or the fruitless Christian? There are many who call themselves Christians and who even look, sound, dress, and act the part. However, there are many people who, like the fig tree, have only the appearance of abundant life and sustaining food without actually bearing any. Many churches and their attending bodies of believers bear beautiful “leaves”—they have stunning campuses, provide ample activities for children and families, do good works in the community such as soup kitchens, clinics, or other outreach programs, and offer a variety of classes ranging from child rearing to marriage counseling and money management. However, all of these things can be provided by a secular establishment who also seeks to do good in the name of man rather than that of God. In my mind, they are like the fig tree in that they provide things people are naturally drawn to without the substance of Christ to sustain those who come to get them.

And what is the result of this for the church or the Christian not producing the “fruit of the spirit”? Are they, too, only ready to be cursed, to wither and die at the root? The answer, I think, is yes. After all, Jesus gives a similar example during His sermon on the mount.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’(Matthew 7: 15-23)

There are several passages in the New Testament, this one included, that cause me to wince and suck air through my teeth. However, a stern warning now, one that makes me uncomfortable, is well worth it in the perspective of eternity. I would rather be reminded every time I read this passage than to forget and live a life without recognizing this truth. After all, people can do “good things” in Christ’s name without having Him anywhere near the process, which can be surprisingly easy to do, especially when we are glorified in the doing of it or when compromises are made in order to get it done.  

By cursing the fig tree that looked the part but that would never provide nourishment, Jesus is showing us all that there are both great rewards for faith and actions as well as punishments for the lack of them. This is especially poignant given the fact that in four days time, His great sacrifice would be made providing reconciliation to the Father for all those who accept Him as Savior and work to further His kingdom.

The Driving of Money Lenders from the Temple (Mark 11:15-19)

For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to this passage of scripture, which is recorded in all of the gospels except John. Jesus had visited the temple the night before and had only observed the goings-on. However, he returns the next day and does some amazing (and to a degree, unexpected) things. Firstly, he quite literally cleans house! He physically drives out those buying and selling in the outer spaces of the temple, those who used it as a market place rather than a house of worship. He also drives out the money lenders and overturns their tables. Why? Jesus was not willing to compromise concerning the use of His Father’s House.

The idea of Jesus, who most people think of as an infinitely patient teacher and leader, flipping over tables  and casting people out fills me with no small amount of pleasure. These who have defiled the temple and turned it into “a den of thieves” are put in their place by none other than the Messiah. He wasn’t afraid to upset a few silly apple carts and rework the status quo! And once the room had been cleared of all the nonsense, He gets back to work preaching and healing the blind and the crippled. People come to hear and praise Him, which irritates the chief priests and scribes to no end. (But, then again, what did He do that didn’t annoy them!?)

This, like the fig tree, is a warning to both the Jewish population to whom he is preaching but also to a modern reader. Those who use the church for their own ends–as a house of commerce rather than an act of worship, a place for changing money rather than saving souls–well, they’ll eventually have their own tables turned. After all, sin is sin, and God can tolerate it from anyone, even His own people. Especially in them.

I don’t even feel this has to be a physical stall or exchange of goods for it to be displeasing to God. Anyone who uses church to make connections, to broker businesses deals, or to craft an image that other businesspeople will trust and admire is “selling” something in the temple. Anyone who preaches with the goal of making money rather than winning souls is guilty of the same sin.

Common sense dictates that not all buying/selling is created equal. For example, kids selling cookies in a foyer to raise money for a mission trip does not fall under this category, but anything other than donations for a cause to benefit the spread of Christianity should be nixed and quickly. Despite the misquotation of the Bible, money is not evil. It can be used for great things. In fact, one of the spiritual gifts that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians is giving, and he states that anyone who can should use that gift just as preachers and teachers and exhorters do theirs. It is when it overruns a church and becomes the primary concern of a church body that Christ finds it objectionable. After all, we’re storing up our treasures in heaven, not on Earth.

Suffice it to say, the first two things Jesus did during the last week up his life are often overlooked, especially when compared to His words at the Last Supper, His actions in the garden of Gethsemane, and, of course, the events surrounding the cross. However, I can’t help but wonder that if He was angered these acts of unfaithfulness and poor service then, how much more so will His feelings be at His return? When he comes again, it will not be as the son of a carpenter, a peasant supposedly easy to try via illegal council or to be scourged and put to death while a criminal like Barabbas walks free. He will come in full splendor to claim what is rightfully His and bring home those who have been found faithful, and want nothing more than to be counted as one of that number!

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