Tricked By A Tree
by Rev. Taylor Smith on June 23, 2021
There is this really odd story that crops up in the Gospels. And in each Gospel account the story has some pretty serious dissimilarities. But the gist of the story goes like this:
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with the disciples in tow. As he’s nearing the city he comes upon a helpless fig tree. Jesus approaches the fig tree, likely to snag a fig, only to find that the tree has no fruit on it. Jesus then “curses” the fig tree.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus curses the tree in front of the disciples and the tree withers away and dies immediately (Matthew 21:18-22). In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus curses the tree in the disciples hearing, only for the disciples to notice that it withered and died when they all pass it by the following morning (Mark 11:12-14 & 20-25). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus actually tells a parable of a fig tree that bears no fruit for three years and when the farmer decides to rip it up, another person encourages the farmer to nurture it for one more year to see what happens (Luke 13:6-9).
So my question: what the heck is this story all about? Why is there a story in scripture – even if in different variations – about Jesus killing trees?
One response to this question is to do a quick word search for “fig tree” in scripture. In so doing, you’ll find many references to fig trees in the Old Testament. It was a fig tree from which Adam and Eve plucked leaves to sew garments for themselves after realizing they were naked. In Deuteronomy, the Promised Land is described as "a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything” (Deut. 8:8-10). During the reign of King Solomon, when Israel (to the North) and Judah (to the South) experienced a time of peace “each man lived under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25). So, fig trees pop up in pivotal moments in salvation history – both the good and the bad. Therefore, perhaps Jesus’ encounter is foreshadowing another important event coming up in the salvation story.
Another way to tackle this question, however, is to look at Jesus’ life and ministry. There are those who would assume that because of Jesus’ divine identity, he was a sweetie-pie who never did anything wrong. But here he’s obviously very angry, to the point he would kill a poor tree.
I wonder if the reason could be likened to a mirage in the desert. I’ve never been to the Sahara or anywhere nearly as vast. But I’ve driven along old, flat, hot country roads and had the experience of seeing a glimmer on the horizon that looked like body of water pooling up on the road ahead. Similarly, I have climbed a few 14,000 foot mountains and experienced the disappointment of a “false peak,” thinking you’re about to reach the top only to realize you’ve still got another 400-600 feet to go.
And perhaps this was Jesus’ beef with the fig tree. Perhaps he was upset because after a long travel he saw something that gave him hope. But when he approached it, he realized his worst fear. This tree has tricked me!
No one likes to be tricked. No one likes to be taken advantage of. And here is a prime example of Jesus, the Christ, telling the disciples (the church?) that none of the pomp and stance, none of the programs, none of the marketing and branding can be a substitute for the real deal. When you’re hungry and need fruit the tree either has sustenance to give or it doesn’t.
I’m so proud of the great ministry that Flower Mound UMC is doing. From our missions programming to our youth ministry. From Sunday School classes to Bible studies. From music ministries to children’s events! From the outside this is a tree that folks will want to approach. And why? Because of your amazing heart!
And I also want to let you know that – in my humble opinion – we’re not only a tree that looks fruitful, but we’re a tree that is bearing fruit. From hospital visits to people finding their passion and purpose. From worship together to fellowship full of laughter and tears of joy. From hugs in the hallways to smiles in the Narthex, it is obvious that this congregation is a tree full of figs.
So I offer you a challenge this week: if you encounter anyone who looks like they might need some nourishment, or better yet, anyone who has been “tricked” by the church in the past, I encourage you to invite them to church this Sunday. Set a time to meet them at the front doors and be sure to sit with them. Take them to lunch after and ask them how their experience was. And most importantly trust your presence to bear fruit for all the world to see.