THE PARABLE OF THE FIG TEACHES US THAT WE HAVE TO BE READY TO BEAR FRUIT IN SEASON AND OUT OF SEASON AS WELL
“When is a miracle not a miracle? The answer to this little riddle might very well be when the miracle is actually a parable. There is one nature miracle in the Gospels that scholars are not really sure whether it should be classified as a miracle or not. This is the case of the cursing of the fig tree.
Toward the end of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus goes into the Temple as part of the Passover celebration. On the way, He and His disciples pass a fig tree. He looks to see whether the tree has any ripe fruit. It, however, is bare of fruit and Jesus curses the tree because of its sterility.
On the way out of the Temple, the disciples spy out the tree which Jesus had cursed, and they notice that it is all dried up. Because the tree had failed to produce fruit for Jesus, it would never bear fruit again.
This miracle bothers many people. It seems a bit mean on Jesus’ part to curse a tree simply because it didn’t have any fruit that particular day. Nowadays there would be at least one group that would demonstrate against Jesus for His cruelty to trees.
But the miracle is even more troubling than it first seems. Jesus was going into the Temple for the Passover. This is a feast that occurs in the Spring. Fig trees, on the other hand, bear fruit in Autumn. That fig tree was not supposed to have any fruit upon it. It was only following God’s will by not having fruit at that time of year. Why would Jesus curse it for doing what it was supposed to do?
DEGREES OF BLINDNESS
The reason that Jesus cursed the fig tree seems to be that this was a miracle that spoke about the faith of the people around Him. This is one of two faith miracles in the Synoptics. In the first one, Jesus heals a man who was blind, but the cure takes two interventions. After the first attempt, the man can see, but he sees people who look like walking trees. It is only after the second attempt that he sees clearly. This particular miracle speaks about the faith of the disciples. When they first came to Jesus, they thought that they saw clearly. Yet, their view of their call was distorted, just like the blind man’s vision after the first intervention. They thought that their discipleship was something that would be profitable. They would become rich and important in Jesus’ kingdom. It was only at the cross that their vision was clarified. They came to understand that they were to pick up their own crosses and follow Jesuus. Thus, like the cured blind man, it took time and more than one intervention for them to see clearly.
In the case of the fig tree, Jesus had to deal with the rejection of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. They should have been the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but they refused to accept Him. In fact, they were already trying to put Him to death.
It must be admitted that Jesus was not exactly the type of Messiah whom they were expecting. They thought that God was going to send a conquering Messiah who would defeat all of Israel’s enemies. The absolute last thing they were expecting was a Messiah who would liberate Israel from their sins by dying on the cross. That was just not what the prophets had foretold.
Or, we might say, that was not how they interpreted the prophecies. There were the poems of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh which are found in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, but the leaders of the Jews and their scholars did not apply those prophesies to the Messiah. They were not really sure who the Suffering Servant was supposed to be. Jesus, however, did know! He applied those prophecies to Himself. Whenever He spoke of the Son of Man suffering and dying on the cross and then rising on the third day, He used phrases drawn from these particular poems. This was His way of defining His mission as Messiah.
A BIT OF CAUTION
This is a clue as to how we are to understand the miracle of the fig tree. Jesus came up to the fig tree out of season, at a time when it was not supposed to have ripe fruit. Nevertheless, because He had come to it, it should have been ready to welcome Him by bearing fruit.
Likewise, Jesus came as a Messiah in a very unexpected way. He was not what the leaders of the Jews were awaiting. In a sense, He came ‘out of season’. Nevertheless, even if He was not what they thought was coming, they should have been willing to bear fruit, even if it was ‘out of season’. They should have welcomed Him. Because the fig tree had not welcomed Jesus, it was cursed and it dried up, never to produce fruit again. Because the leaders of the Jews had failed to welcome Jesus, they were ‘cursed’ and would never bear fruit again.
We have to read this message with a bit of caution. The Gospels were written when the early Christian community was being persecuted, often by the Jewish community. There was tremendous antagonism between Christians and Jews. They accused each other of rebelling against the plan of God. They openly cursed each other and condemned each other to eternal punishment.
It would be easy to misread these condemnations as eternal judgements. This has, in fact, been done through the history of anti-Semitism. The Church, and especially Pope John Paul II, has spoken forcefully about the fact that the Jewish people are the people of the promise, and that God does not go back on His promise. The Church has declared anti-Semitism a sin!
IS THIS A MIRACLE?
However, we must now return to the question asked at the beginning of this article. Is this actually a miracle? We ask this question because there is, in fact, a parable about a fig tree and bearing fruit. A man in charge of his master’s property points out a particular tree to the master, telling him that it had not yet borne fruit. The master instructs the man to dig up the ground around it and to manure it and see whether it would then bear fruit. If it did not, it was to be cut down and thrown into the fire.
The similarity of the message, the idea of bearing fruit and possibly being cut down, reminds us of the fig tree miracle. Might the cursing of the fig tree story have begun as a parable, and as it was passed down orally in the community, someone told the story in a way that made it sound as if it really happened? Those who heard this version then would have retold the story as a miracle story and not a parable.
Ultimately, we don’t know. We have our suspicions, but what is important in this particular story is the message. We have to be ready to bear fruit in season and out of season…the fruits of the Holy Spirit…we should be ready to welcome God and His messengers, even if we encounter them in a way that we had not anticipated.”
– This article by Jude Winkler, OFM Conv. was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue May 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy.