Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Tree

There's an interesting story in the Gospels. Jesus, who is coming with His disciples to Jerusalem for the final time, encounters a fig tree that, unfortunately, has no figs on it. He curses the tree and it withers up and dies, never to produce fruit again.

It's an odd scene for many reasons. 

It's out of character, it seems, for the person of God, who talks often about the fruit that a tree bears. There are references in the Old Testament to trees bearing their fruit in season - even a good tree is not always fruited. You don't harvest apples in the early spring; they come later in the fall. At least, the good ones do. And it seems that a God who is so knowledgeable of and gracious toward seasons would look at a fig tree, even one in full blossom, and appreciate the season it is in. If there are no figs, perhaps it is simply not fig season.

If it is fig season, perhaps this tree has already been harvested by the many others who walk this road or, perhaps, by the man who owns the fig tree. By all accounts, this was actually a pretty good-looking fig tree. It just didn't happen to have any figs on it at the time, for whatever reason. It seems inconsistent that God would not more fully assess the tree before cursing it.

And it's out of character for Jesus, too, it seems. He, too, knows how to recognize a good tree; He talks about them all the time. I am the vine, you are the branches, He says. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a bad tree cannot produce good fruit, He says in another place. Then we find Him standing here looking at a good tree, and He seems to forget the very truth that He's spoken - that a good tree will produce good fruit. In what seems His most uncalculated move in all the Gospels, He curses the good tree and turns it bad. 

What's up with that?

It's not a story I readily understand. Or rather, it's one I find difficult to incorporate into what I see of Jesus in the rest of the Gospels. A Man who ate nothing in the wilderness for forty days has no concept of delayed gratification when one fig tree has no fruit for Him in a town filled with merchants? Does the Son of God have such a temper? It just makes no sense.

But it starts to make a little more sense, at least to me, when you consider the bigger scene. Here's Jesus, with His disciples, and they're entering Jerusalem for what He knows will be the final time. The town is abuzz with the preparations for the Passover. Everyone's talking about lambs to the slaughter and sacrifices being made, and He's the only one who understands how right they really are.

The hill lays ominously before Him. It's like He can see it through the houses and booths and courtyards, like He's looking right through Jerusalem to Golgotha. He hears the voices in the Temple from a distance and knows these are the very voices that will soon condemn Him, and here they are talking about God's mercy, God's sparing of the first-born sons. 

Right, He thinks to Himself. Except one first-born Son He cannot spare. 

The pressure of what's about to go down is getting to Him. We see that later when He prays in Gethsemane. He's so agonized by all that this is that His drops of sweat become like drops of blood. By this point, it's all-consuming. He's been talking about it on and off throughout His ministry, but it just got real. This is it. Do or die.

Rather, do...and die. 

Then He comes upon this tree. This almost-in-season, or perhaps just-out-of-season, or perhaps just-harvested tree, an admittedly good, although barren, tree. And He curses it. Right in front of God and everybody, He curses the good tree. 

Which makes almost no sense at all...

...unless you realize that in a few short days, He's going to die on one. 

In a few short days, the Son of Man is going to hang on a cursed tree, and that cursed tree will be the first in all of Creation to bear good fruit.

It's like the fig tree is setting Him up. He's using it to set Himself up. This good tree, this admittedly good tree, will produce no fruit. Counter to everything we know, everything we've been taught, everything He Himself has said about good trees, there will be no more fruit from this good tree. 

And the cursed tree? Well, we're about to see what the cursed tree will do.

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