Matthew 21: 18-22
Have you ever longed for someone to be real with you? Or, do you desperately want to be authentic and genuine, but are too terrified of what others will think? That they might not like the real you? So you stay covered up, because it seems safer.
In the Gospel of Matthew 21: 18-22, Jesus notices a fig tree. He’s hungry, and he sees the lush, full leaves associated with ripe fruit. He is frustrated, however, to discover no figs and curses the tree, declaring that it will never bear fruit again. What is this all about? Low blood sugar issues? Let’s take a closer look.
If you understand this in the context in which it was written, three related events occur surrounding Jesus cursing the fig tree. He uses these as teaching points for his disciples. First there was the cleansing in the Temple, where Jesus was a teeny tiny bit upset that His Father’s House was being used for the wrong purposes. Then, conversations with the religious leaders and chief priests were proving “fruitless” in their unwillingness to accept His authority and identity as the Messiah. The next day, he uses the fruit to further illustrate the point that the nation of Israel, the religious leaders and Jesus’s references to fruit are the same. None of them were fulfilling God’s intended purposes of bearing fruit.
Isn’t it always easier to appear clean, productive and “put together” from the outside so that we can impress others, yet avoid or ignore the inside? If only we worked just as hard at becoming authentic and genuine as we do at projecting a false reality, we would all be a lot spiritually healthier.
Since I’m slowly learning how to garden, I have been curious as to why the fig tree that Jesus took issue with was not producing fruit. Not that I’m planning on growing on my own figs, but I had to wonder about the soil composition. Was it getting enough water? The Gospel of Mark may shed a little more light on cultivating figs. Mark 11:12-13 mentions “Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.”
Fig trees are a popular source of inexpensive food in Israel, and they require about three years from the time they are planted until they can bear fruit (Bibleplaces.com). Each tree yields a great amount of fruit twice a year, in late spring and in early autumn. Was it simply off season for figs?
What are the conditions that a fig tree needs to produce fruit? Soil that is free of clay. Too much, and it will not bear fruit. Its roots are shallow, so it needs a lot of water during the growing season. Not enough water will lead to no fruit. If you’re cultivating fig trees, it needs regular pruning. Lack of consistent pruning can lead to no fruit.
What do believers need to thrive? Solid truth and Biblical teaching (good seed), Christian community (good soil), a lot of time in prayer (sunlight), and Living water (the right amount of water). The fig tree needed exactly what Jesus came to do. Like a master gardener, he came to transplant, water and prune Israel.
The fig tree is mentioned more than 50 times in scripture, and the very first reference is in Genesis 3:7 where Adam and Eve sew fig leaves together to cover up their nakedness. I had no idea! Fig leaves are about the size of an adult human hand and are hairy on the back side. Fig trees were plentiful in the Garden of Eden. Equally fascinating is that figs were one of several species growing in Canaan, the Promised Land, before the Israelites entered, according to Numbers 13:23. The spies brought back samples of figs. This particular fruit represents economic and spiritual prosperity in the land. They are both cultivated and grow wild, indigenous to Asiatic, Turkey, northern India and Mediterranean climates and thrive in the full sun.
We are the fig tree. We all strive to look good from the outside. In America, the pressure to look perfect is overwhelming, especially for women. Billions of advertising dollars are spent to tell us precisely how to style and color our hair, how to apply flawless make-up, and the latest fashion trends. While there’s nothing wrong with looking our best, our relationship to the Lord can wither away just like the fig tree if we don’t actively tend to it.
The chief priests and religious leaders simply refused to accept Jesus as an authority figure. As the Messiah. Some days, so do I. Is the struggle real for you too? Would I have responded to Jesus like the religious authorities, or the common people? Would I have resented Jesus’ rising popularity? Would I have resented my power slowly slipping away with this rock star teaching about love and healing the sick? Would I have resented my traditional ways of thinking and teaching the Old Testament law upended and challenged? I may have been seething as well while the Master Gardner was busy replanting, repotting, pruning and watering. Maybe I would have been part of the bad soil. No wonder they had no fruit.
Looking good and putting on the appearance of righteousness is always easier with our sinful nature. Satan is a master at trapping us this way. Who doesn’t want a good reputation? We all want to present ourselves well, impress others and cover up our flaws. But God wants to transform us from the inside out, not the outside in. Isn’t that amazing? When the desire to look good on the outside becomes more important than tending to our hearts and minds, it becomes an idol and our hearts harden.
Like or not, Jesus was all about zeroing in on the heart of the matter. He knew the motives of chief priests and religious leaders. Time and time again, he valued authentic, trusting hearts. When we can get vulnerable and raw before the Lord, that’s where the exhaustion and insecurity from all the pretending and impressing ends and where the healing begins. I am only just beginning to understand this myself. It’s only when we can submit to his authority and obey that we can begin bearing fruit and fulfill his intended purposes for our lives.
Heavenly Father, please reveal to me what the issues are that need attention within my heart so that I may be able to bear fruit as well. Forgive me for failing to surrender to your authority. Forgive me for struggling to impress or please or trying to be something or someone that I’m not. Help me work towards authenticity in all my relationships so that they may be pleasing to you. Thank you, Father, that you desire to transform us from the inside out, rather than the outside in. What you alone offer is unlike any other religion, belief system, or self-help guru. You alone have the authority to help me bear fruit.