GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
August 16, 2020
LORD, MAKE OUR LEAVES GREEN
What is expected of fruit trees, maybe not so much from wild trees but certainly domesticated trees, planted and tended? Fruit. That’s the purpose of planting the tree, that’s what is expected in due season. One does not plant fruit trees for their leaves, their bark, or for firewood. No matter the particular the kind of tree, the reason for planting and tending it is that it produce its proper fruit. Jesus told a parable about an unproductive fig tree (Luke 13:6-9). It was not a wild tree but rather one planted and tended in the vineyard or garden of the landowner. In the season of harvest the owner looked for fruit from the tree but there was none. He spoke to the gardener, the one tending to that tree and other trees, vines, etc in the vineyard. “This fig tree,” he said, “has no fruit. For three years I have sought figs on it and found none. Cut it down and remove it. Why should it use the ground – it burdens the ground and deprives other growing things of what the ground gives?” There is no indication that the tree had been neglected by the gardener, no evidence that it was diseased or harmed and hindered by other plants in the garden. It was simply unproductive – a barren tree that had no proper fruit. It might have been a decent shade tree – there is evidence that sitting under one’s own fig tree was comforting, evidence perhaps of some prosperity and well-being (Micah 4:4). But the reason for having fig trees, exactly the same as the reason for having grape vines, date palms, or any other vine or tree or plant: for the fruit they can produce. When the land owner said of the unproductive fig tree in his garden that it should be cut down, the gardener pleaded for it: “Let me fertilize it and irrigate it properly and give it another year to become productive. If it fails, then it certainly should be removed.” Note: is God giving evidence that He is a Lord of second chances, that He makes it possible for past failures to become present or future successes? We like to think so. But even if that is so, let nobody presume it means one will be spared forever. Is He saying that unfruitful members of His kingdom family will end up in the fire if, after suitable care, provision, and tending they do not bear proper fruit? See John 15:1-11.
Some Thoughts About Cursing A Barren Fig Tree
Mark 11:12-14, Matthew 21:18-23
Jesus, along with his disciples, saw one morning a fig tree with leaves. He was hungry so he approached the fig tree looking for edible figs, but he found the tree was barren – no fruit at all, nothing but leaves. Mark notes it was not yet the season for ripe figs. Jesus then cursed the tree. He did not berate the tree with vile or vulgar language, “cuss” words – no doubt such language never issued from Jesus’ mouth. He said, “No one will ever again eat fruit from you … let there be no fruit from you ever again” – the equivalent of a curse of perpetual barrenness and inability to produce fruit was placed on the tree. Immediately the tree began to wither and die. Next morning it had withered completely and was dead. Was this a sign of a bad temper, a petulant and petty and rather childish retaliation for an unfulfilled desire, a symptom of horticultural or agricultural ignorance, a demonstration of his power over nature, an object lesson to his disciples – and hence to us, or something else? Why did Jesus curse an inanimate non-rational and insensate tree? We can draw at least two valuable lessons from this encounter: pretenders and hypocrites are not tolerated; fruitless Christians are not tolerated either. There is no need to think Jesus did not know the condition of the tree before approaching it. He often used events or circumstances and conditions found along the way as metaphors, similes, or parables to teach pertinent lessons to his disciples. One will need to apply other teachings apart from this one and its context, not taking it as a stand-alone self-evident event. Unless we understand the lesson intended for people at the time it was given we will not be able to make a correct application to ourselves and our time.
Jesus was not wrong in expecting to find fruit on the tree. It is typical of the fig tree that thrives in Palestine and Judea to put forth leaves and fruit at about the same time, actually the buds of the fruit appear before the leaves appear. The early figs – we may call them pre-figs, but early or immature figs is more appropriate – are edible. Green figs are not as problematic as many other fruits in their unripe stage – when leaves appear on the tree the justifiable assumption is that edible fruit is already there. The presence of leaves could be interpreted as the tree effectively advertising that it had produced fruit. Like a chicken hen cackling after having laid an egg. Boasting, “Look what I’ve done; look what I’ve done!” Or just announcing? But the cackling is not the egg, just as the leaves are not the figs. It’s just a way of drawing attention to the anticipated product being announced as now present.
The lesson is not that the hungry Jesus was disappointed to find no food on the tree. On a different occasion Jesus and his hungry disciples plucked the heads of grain from the stalks, rubbed the husks off and ate the raw kernels of grain (Luke 6:1). Did you know that fig leaves are edible? They can be eaten pickled, boiled, baked, or cooked in other ways just like many kinds of leafy plants: lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and greens from collard, chard, mustard, and turnips (all southerners know and appreciate turnip greens). Some can also be eaten uncooked. Fig leaves, like grape leaves, are nutritious, low calorie, high in certain vitamins and minerals, phenols, and helpful digestive fiber — they’re good and good for you. I’m not being facetious when I say if they were hungry they could have eaten the leaves from that fig tree. But that’s not the point Jesus was planning to make from the incident – he was not upset by not finding food to satisfy his hunger. He was upset about not finding the particular food the tree was advertising by its abundant leaves.
Churches and individual Christians can be guilty of false advertising too by producing leaves, not fruits, but advertising fruits they may not have. Buildings are leaves, not fruits. No matter how attractive, costly, or ostentatious it may be a church building cannot preach, evangelize, or minister in any way to anybody. Buildings, including the most famous cathedrals, cannot “do the work of the church.” Yet people continue to buy into the idea that if we build a better building they (the people of the world) will come. Nonsense! If people come for the building they may marvel at the architecture and furnishings but they will not find God, since God does not dwell in temples made by men’s hands (Acts 7:48). Nor will adding a theater, a basketball court and other sports equipment, a pantry, a soup kitchen, a health clinic, or other benevolent gestures save anybody or keep anyone from falling away from the church or from the faith. Those things are leaves, not fruits. One may wear a Christian mask without being a true Christian. Pious attitudes, eloquent prayers, fervent singing, even sacrificial giving and zealous “personal evangelism” – such as door-knocking, street preaching, urging others to obey the gospel to be saved and added to the church – are leaves, not fruit.
Jesus warns that those abiding in him, as branches in the vine can and must bear proper fruit or they will be broken off and cast into the fire (John 15:1-11). If just being a Christian is not enough to secure salvation, what kind of fruit does the Lord require of his disciples? Those who actually do obey the gospel and become people of the Lord in response to your efforts to teach them can be called your fruit. This is the kind of fruit Paul sought to produce in Rome (Rom. 1:11-13). What other kind of fruit can a Christian produce? Allowing the Holy Spirit to work in you to produce in you the character qualities of Christ (Gal. 5:22-23 fruit of the Spirit; 2 Cor. 3:18 the image and likeness of Christ, compare Rom. 8:29) is bearing fruit for Christ in yourself. Peter urges diligence in adding and developing certain Christian virtues in your own life – a list that differs somewhat from Paul’s – will enable you to be a partaker of the divine nature and secure your entrance into the Lord’s eternal kingdom (2 Peter 1:1-10).
- First published in THE QUARTERLY, Vol. 4, Number 3 from Cobb Publishing.
Stan Mitchell helps Christians to verify what kind of fruit they are producing in Reality Check.