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. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
The first tree mentioned in the Bible is the Tree of Life. The second tree is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve had forsaken the one by partaking of the other, they made their way to the third tree mentioned by name in scripture – the fig tree, its leaves sewn together as a makeshift covering for their newly discovered nakedness. Soon enough before they left the Garden, their leafy self-covering would be replaced with an animal skin fashioned by God himself. The fig leaf was humanity’s imperfect attempt to do what God would do perfectly later on.
In time, the fig tree came to symbolize the nation of Israel, the people called out by God to dwell righteously with Him. The legal system of sacrifices and purification governed the Temple and made it possible for fallen humanity to fellowship with a Holy God. The fig leaf, an imperfect symbol of the righteousness necessary to experience God, was meant to remind Israel that their God was among them as a blessing to the whole world. It soon turned into a symbol to the rest of the world that God was with us but not with you. It stopped producing its intended fruit – a symbolic invitation for all to come and see the God who is here, now.
To curse the fig tree was to symbolically curse the very system that had grown up to keep some people – all non-Jews, that is – away from God. The fruitless tree that symbolized a fruitless system came under the judgment and curse of the one who came to bring the life and Presence of the Living God into the world.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves…
Temple worship required sacrifice. One did not simply enter the presence of a Holy God without cost. In theory, the selling of sacrifices spared travelers the headache of traveling long distances with livestock. In practice, the merchant tables set up in the Court of the Gentiles excluded non-Jewish people from the sacrifices necessary for Temple worship. The high-cost of sacrifices excluded the poor. Jesus didn’t turn over the tables because He hated profit. He turned over the tables because they were part of a system that clearly designated “us” and “them”, and made worship available only to “us” and not to “them”.
Jesus cursed the symbolic representation of a religious system that kept people away from God, and then He marched into Jerusalem and cursed the physical manifestation of the same
To worship God through the person of Jesus is to recognize the insufficiency of our own fig-leaf coverings and humbly accept the sacrificial covering that only God can provide. All our attempts at religious righteousness are fine, such as they are, but they will always fall short of the full and final covering provided by God through the giving of His Son Jesus.
As we march toward Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, we must confront all the fig-leaf symbols of our never-ending attempt to be our own God by dictating the terms of our righteousness and acceptance.
On this Holy Week Monday, let us consider all the ways we’ve attempted to come to God on our own terms, and let us encounter the cursed fig tree and overturned tables as a warning.
Let us consider all the ways that our well-meaning religion has created a barrier to those who seek to know God’s work in us and through us.
Let us take care that our practice of righteousness doesn’t keep us from those who most desperately need to see it and experience it lived out in front of them and among them.
Let us pause and check that our religious pursuit of Jesus is producing the kind of fruit that pleases God and is a blessing to the world where He is very much alive and very much at work.
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.