Matthew 21 18-22: THE WITHERED FIG-TREE

(1) Introduction: Some facts about a fig-tree. Read Matthew 21 18-22 and Mark 11 12-14 20-26

This passage poses some difficult problems. It has taken me a long time to produce an exposition on the subject. I am going to begin by describing some characteristics of the fig-tree.

In the late spring the leaves emerge. At this time there are usually a few figs called breba that grow from the previous year's shoot growth. Behind every leaf a tiny fig forms on the current years shoot growth. This fig is the main crop and is ripe by late summer, early autumn. The yield is phenomenally high.

It is important to understand the condition of the tree that Jesus approached in spring before the main fruiting season. Mark notes that it was not the season for figs - meaning the main crop. The breba crop could have been destroyed by spring frosts. As a consequence Jesus would be unfortunate not to find edible figs on the tree. However, the tiny, unripe, main crop figs behind the leaves could have been present with the promise of a harvest later in the year. If that was the case it is difficult to understand why Jesus cursed the tree saying, "May you never bear fruit again." If the tree retained the potential to bear fruit why condemn it to fruitlessness. The other possibility is that there were no figs on the tree at all: neither breba nor the harbingers of the main season harvest.

The main reason for a leafy fig bearing no fruit, is that it is a mutant. Mutants commonly result from a fig-tree growing from seed passed, for example, in a bird's droppings. Cultivated figs grow from cuttings and share the characteristics of the parent tree. Fig-trees growing from seed are wild, hedgerow figs that are often fruitless mutants.

Matthew records that the fig-tree Jesus searched was by the road and bore nothing but leaves. It had no fruit of any description. The problem this poses arises from the curse Jesus pronounced on it: "May you never bear fruit again." If it was a mutant it probably had never born fruit and would never bear fruit in the future. The other possibility is that it was a mutant that bore fruit erratically. It would have been more appropriate for Jesus to have said, "May you never be in leaf again." It was the leaves that promised fruit. It was the leaves that gave life to the tree. Without leaves the mutant fig-tree would die.

This is in fact what happened. Christ's curse resulted in the leaves withering and the tree dying.

It was the leaves, the externals, that mislead the weary traveller, wasted his time and brought disappointment. So better the fruitless fig-tree die. Is this how you feel? I am inclined to protest at the premature death of the leafy fig. At the very least its leaves provided welcome shade for the weary pilgrim.

(2) Lessons from the unproductive fig-tree.

(a) The existence of leaves created an expectation of fruit although as Mark indicates it wasn't the season for the main fig harvest. However, it was the time of year to find a few breba figs growing on the old wood.

Perhaps the lesson we are meant to learn from Jesus' disappointment is that wherever the outward signs of religious commitment exist, we should expect to find the fruits of the Spirit. So among people who meet together in church to worship Jesus you would hope to find: love, joy, kindness and faithfulness. See Gal5v22.

If Jesus came to a church congregation today searching for fruit he would expect to find Christians living out the Beatitudes.

(b) Sadly the existence of leaves on a fig-tree is no guarantee of fruitfulness.

The Pharisees gave the impression of being devoted to God. They wore the right clothes, ate the right food, observed the Sabaath, ensured they were ceremonially clean and tithed the herbs of their garden but negected the more important matthers of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. Mt23v23. The Sadducees officiated at the Temple and offered one sacrifice after another but were unwilling to recognise the authority of Jesus.

There exist churches today that give the impression of piety by how their adherents dress, their reverence for God's Word, their observance of the Lord's Day and the solemnity of their worship. But it is all leaves. Now there is some benefit to be derived from a tree that is all leaves. It provides shade, shelter and is of a pleasing appearance. Nevertheless these are no substitute for fruit - the fruit that Jesus describes in the Beatitudes. How rare it is to find true humility in churches tainted by legalism.

(c) There are many reasons why a leafy fig-tree might lack fruit. The tree may be under stress due to drought, late frost, disease, or trace element deficiencies.

The tree Jesus investigated was by the side of the road leading to Jerusalem. It was a wayside tree and as such would not be ideal for fruiting. We must also accept that due to its position others had picked what fruit there was. In such circumstances it should be possible to improve conditions and facilitate fruitfulness. Jesus told a parable to this effect. See Luke13v6to8.

Some fruitless trees can with careful husbandry be made to fruit again.

(d) It is likely that the wayside fig was a mutant. Farmers grew fig-trees from cuttings. This ensures the DNA of the new tree is identical to the DNA of the tree from which the cutting is taken. However new fig-trees can also grow from seed. The seed could be excreted in the dropping of a bird. The DNA of the fig-tree grown from seed will be unique. A mutation in the DNA could result in a fruitless tree or one that fruits erratically.

In all probability the tree Jesus cursed fruited erratically because he said: "May no-one ever eat fruit from you again." The only way Jesus could stop fruit ever appearing on the tree again was to kill it!

This is just what he did. Immediately after Jesus cursed the tree the leaves began to wither. By next day the tree was withered from the roots.

I feel very uneasy about this! Surely a tree that sometimes bears fruit is better than no tree at all! I suppose a tree that never bore fruit could be labelled as such. 'Fruitless' could be carved into the trunk. So labelled, it would waste little of the weary traveller's time. The same is not true of a tree that fruits erratically. It will disappoint; it wastes men's time and, perhaps, it will transmit its mutation to new wayside fig-trees.

The disciples were not surprised that the mutant fig-tree withered and died. They had witnessed wayside figs dying before. What surprised the disciples was the speed at which it died.

Many once productive churches are dying in Britain. My own church, that 50 years ago saw several young people saved, is just slowly withering away as the older members die and are not replaced. None of those who were converted at the same time as me still live in the neighbourhood of the church. The leaves are withering and when only a handful remain the once healthy tree will die.

This is not the sort of withering Jesus brought about. The unfruitful wayside fig is like a Christian cult. Cults spring up. They are typified by a kind of mutant Christianity. Fortunately such dangerous, fruitless cults often do not last long. They wither and die quickly - but not before they have done quite a bit of harm.

(3) Two questions to conclude wih.

(a) Why didn't Jesus miraculously cure the tree and make it fruitful. Surely this is a better alternative to cursing the tree. The mutant fig just needs to have its nature changed. Surely this is what Jesus came to do - change the nature of fruitless, mutant man. Jesus actually said to Nicodemus, "You must be born again."

Yet this is not quite what happens. First, a person needs to exercise faith in Jesus to be changed by the Holy Spirit. The change has more to do with their interest in the Scriptures, their desire to pray and their enjoyment of worship, than their conduct. The fruits of the Spirit - the human spirit(?) - do not appear without considerable input from the believer. It remains a constant battle to be good - loving, loyal and longsuffering! There is nothing automatic about growing in grace. The inclination to sin remains. Our spiritual DNA means we bear fruit erratically.

If Jesus had changed the nature of the erratically fruiting fig-tree we might conclude that he could do the same for us. Surely he could change our nature to such an extent that we couldn't be anything else but fruitful. The responsibility for being fruitful would be taken out of our hands. In my experience this hasn't been the case.

We, like the mutant fig, can bear fruit erratically and distress Jesus, but unlike the fig we are able to do something about it. This means that the mutant fig is not so much a picture of the individual Christian who promises much and yields little, as a description of a church damaged by legalism, ritualism, political correctness, liberalism, idolatry, and so on.

(b) Why did Jesus respond to the disciples' surprise at the rapid death of the fig by talking to them about faith?

Well, faith is based on knowledge and experience. You need to know when a fig-tree is beyond redemption. Only then can you with any certainty condemn it to death.

If you know that a mountain should be dug up and dumped in the sea then you will need faith to buy a spade and start digging.

If you know that any enterprise is in the will of God you will pray in the certainty that God will answer your prayer and then commence on the enterprise you have prayed about.

There are many instances of this happening both on a large and a small scale. In the Middle Ages the great cathedrals of our land were erected by faith. We may upset someone in our church. We can pray in faith for reconciliation and then make the first step toward it. God will ensure success if we act in faith.

(4) Conclusion.

I am not very pleased with this exposition. It is possible that Jesus sees in the fruitless fig-tree a picture of what Judaism was like. It was a bit like a mutant fig tree. It did bear some fruit; consider Simeon, Anna, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and the poor widow who gave all she had. However, in the main the worship was all show, nothing but leaves, and a great disappointment to God. Jesus was not welcomed by the priestly caste nor by the Pharisees. He knew that in a very short time the axe would be at the root of the mutant fig and Judaism would be destroyed along with the Holy City and the Temple. It wasn't so much a consequence of God's curse as the inevitable outcome of militant nationalism and fierce pride. God could have spared Jerusalem, its Temple and its priests had he chose to do so. Jesus realised that this would not happen - such was the mutant's poor fruiting record. Jesus did not so much curse the mutant species of Judaism as forecast its inevitable doom - a doom writ large in its DNA!

I fear some Christian denominations have mutated and bear little resemblance to the way they were in their origins. I wonder what John Wesley would make of Methodism or William Booth of the Salvation Army today. In the past the main pre-occupation of these organisations was to save souls. They bore fruit of this sort in super abundance. It is no longer the case. Could both present day Methodism and the Salvation Army have mutated?