THE BARREN FIG TREE

Mark 11:12-24

(Slightly Rephrased)


"Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, 'Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.' And His disciples heard it." (Mark 11:12-14)

"Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, 'Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.' So Jesus answered and said to them, 'Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, Be removed and be cast into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them." (Mark 11:20-24)

No sooner has Jesus claimed His kingdom than He performs His first and only miracle of judgment. It is certain that no mortal, informed that such a miracle was impending, could have guessed where the blow would fall. In this miracle an element is predominant, which exists in all, since it is worked as an acted dramatized parable--but not for any physical advantage, but wholly for the instruction which it conveys.

Jesus hungered at the very outset of a day of toil, as He came out from Bethany. This was not due to poverty, since the disciples there had recently made Him a great feast, but to His own absorbing ardor. The zeal of God's house, which He had seen polluted and was about to cleanse, had either left Him indifferent to food (until the keen air of morning aroused the sense of need) or else it had detained Him all night long in prayer and meditation out of doors. As He walks He sees afar off a lonely fig tree covered with leaves, and He comes to it hoping He might find something on it. It is true that figs would not be in season for two months, but yet they ought to present themselves before the leaves did. Since the tree was precocious in the show and profusion of luxuriance, it ought to bear early figs. If it failed, it would at least point out a powerful moral. Therefore, when only leaves appeared upon it, Jesus cursed it with perpetual barrenness and passed on. The following morning, when they passed by again, the blight was manifest; the tree was withered from its very roots.

There are those who complain that by this act Jesus deprived someone of his property. But the same retributive justice of which this was an expression was preparing to presently blight all the possessions of all the nation. Was this unjust? Of the numberless trees that are blasted year by year, why should the loss of this one only be resented? Every physical injury must be intended to further some spiritual end; but it is not often that the purpose is so clear and the lesson so distinctly learned.

Others blame our Lord's word of judgment because a tree, not being a moral agent, ought not to be punished. It is an obvious rejoinder that neither could it suffer pain. The whole action is symbolic; and we ourselves justify the Savior's method of expression as often as we call one tree "good" and another "bad," and say that a third "ought" to bear fruit while not much could be "expected" of a fourth. It should rather be observed that in this word of judgment Jesus revealed His tenderness. It would have been a false and cruel kindness never to work any miracle except of compassion and thus to suggest the inference that He could never strike. Indeed, before that generation passed away He would break His enemies in pieces like a potter's vessel.

Yet He came not to destroy men's lives but to save them. Therefore, while showing Himself neither indifferent nor powerless against barren and false pretensions, He did this only once; and then only by a sign worked upon an inanimate tree. Retribution fell upon it not for its lack of fruit, but for ostentatious and much-professing fruitlessness. Thus, with dread significance, it pointed to the condition of God's own people, who differed from Greece and Rome and Syria not in the lack of fruit, but in the show of luxuriant foliage--in the expectation it excited and mocked. When the season of the world's fruitfulness was yet remote, only Israel put forth leaves and made professions which were not fulfilled. The permanent warning of the miracle is not for heathen men and races, but for Christians who have a name to live by and who are called to bear fruit unto God.

While the disciples marveled at the sudden fulfillment of its sentence, they could not have forgotten the parable of a fig tree in the vineyard, of which care and labor were lavished but which must be destroyed after one year of respite if it continued to encumber the ground.

Jesus drove the lesson home. He pointed to "this mountain," fully in view with the gold and marble of the temple sparkling like a diadem upon its brow, and declared that faith is not only able to smite barrenness with death, but to remove into the midst of the sea--to plant among the wild and stormswept races of the immeasurable pagan world--the glory and privilege of the realized presence of the Lord. To do this was the purpose of God, hinted by many a prophet and clearly announced by Christ Himself. But its accomplishment was left to His followers, who should succeed in exact proportion as their will was in union with that of God. The condition of that moral miracle, transcending all others in marvel and in efficacy, was simple faith.

The same rule covers all the exigencies of life. One who truly relies on God, whose mind and will are attuned to those of the Eternal, cannot be selfish or vindictive or presumptuous. As far as we rise to the grandeur of this condition, we enter into the Omnipotence of God. No limit need be imposed upon the prevalence of real and utterly believing prayer. The wishes that ought to be refused will vanish as we attain that eminence, like the hoar frost of morning as the sun grows strong.

Jesus added a precept to this promise, the admirable suitability of which is not at first apparent. Most sins are made evident to the conscience in the act of prayer. Drawing nigh to God we feel our unfitness to be there, and we are made conscious of what He frowns upon. If we have such faith as Jesus spoke of, we at once resign what would grieve the Spirit of adoption. No saint is ignorant of the convicting power of prayer. But it is not necessarily so with resentment for real grievances. We may think we do well to be angry. We may confound our selfish fire with the pure flame of holy zeal. We may begin with confidence enough, yet not with the mind of Christ, to remove mountains, not because they impede a holy cause but because they throw a shadow upon our own field. Therefore Jesus reminds us that not only wonder-working faith but even the forgiveness of our sins requires that we forgive our brother. This saying is the clearest proof of how much is implied in a truly undoubting heart. This promise is the sternest rebuke of the Church, endowed with such ample powers, and yet which after nineteen centuries is still confronted by an unconverted world.

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