I’m looking up at my favorite tree in El Cajon. A huge, beautiful fig, like the ones in Balboa Park. The trunk splits into hefty multi trunks, and the roots, shallow and white, spreading and then disappearing under the sidewalk and Ballantyne Avenue. The canopy reaches the height of the building next to it. Everytime I drive by it, I feel a surge of happy gratefulness.
And I think of the fig tree that Jesus cursed (Mark 11:12-14). As a treehugger myself, this story has always irked me. Why did He do that? Was he just hangry? He knew this tree. He knew it wasn’t fig season.
The day before, he had come into Jerusalem as King on a colt, and “looked around at everything” in the temple courts. (Mark 11:11) When he found the fig tree fruitless that morning, his mind was filled with what he had seen in the temple. It was no longer a flourishing place of worship, but for buying and selling and scheming. Jesus cursed the tree, and the next day the disciples saw it withered from its roots. Dead.
Trees (big and small, alive and dead) stand significantly throughout the Bible, often used to illustrate the connection between people and God. We have the Tree of Life and The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, where God walked with his first image bearers. He meets Moses at a bush, Abraham builds an altar to the Lord under the Oaks at Mamre, the angel spoke to Gideon from a tree, Jesus proves himself to Nathanael by saying he saw him under a fig tree. (I also learned that God refers to himself as an “evergreen cypress” in Hosea 14:8.) So many theological events take place around, near, or because of a tree. Author Matthew Sleeth, in his book Reforesting Faith, argues that this Scriptural forest is one of God’s ways of helping us see and marvel at him. Trees are the perfect metaphor for our life on earth and our relationship with him. Sleeth writes: “The human body runs on oxygen and the energy stored in carbon bonds. That’s how our bodies work. The human soul was built to run on communion with God. That’s how our souls work” (Reforesting Faith, pp. 85).
Surely, Sleeth is drawing on Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man who….[delights in] the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither.”
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often compared to a fig tree. In Hosea 9:10 the Lord says, ‘Like grapes in the wilderness I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers.” But in Jeremiah 8:13, God finds no good fruit in Judah to be picked, and says “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered…”
Now, Jesus’s judgment on the fig tree begins to make more sense. Like the Lord observes in Jeremiah (and later in Hosea 11:16, and Joel 1:7 and 12), Jesus saw a fruitless Israel, a withering fig. No longer rooted in God’s law, the people meditated instead on money changing. Jesus could have rightly done more than just curse a tree and drive the money changers out of the temple, which stoked the anger of the Pharisees, those showy but fruitless leaders of Israel.
But that wasn’t the plan he had made with his Father. The curse on the fig tree is the curse that he himself will bear on a different tree. He will be bound and whipped and nailed to logs. He will be ripped from his roots for three days.
But he is the True Vine. He comes back. He comes back to be the twining vine that reaches wide and grafts us into his life giving branches. He is the purifying tree, cleansing us on the cross, and God is the Gardener who prunes us that we may bear more fruit.
Kaleo, may we be like trees that bear fruit according to their season. May we find ourselves ruminating on the Word of God by streams of living water, breathing in the fresh air of our freedom from sin, and exhaling the sweet aroma of Christ.
-Annika, her husband, Joel, and children, Fritz and Dezi, have attended Kaleo church for about five years. Annika enjoys homeschooling, gardening, playing soccer, and marveling at God's creation.