How God Got My Attention with a Fruitless Fig Tree

Here in Texas, you do NOT want someone to say you are “all hat and no cattle.” In the same way, those of us who profess to follow Christ never want him to declare we are all leaves and no figs! Earlier this week, as I read the Gospel accounts of Holy Week, the puzzling account of Jesus cursing a fig tree captured my attention (Matthew 21:12-22 and Mark 11:12-24). I’ve read these passages before, scratched my head in confusion, and moved on to the more straight-forward parts of the story. This time, I couldn’t let go of this odd scene. I felt God encouraging me to linger, listen, and learn.

A Fig Tree

Modified version of a photo by Ian Scott / CC BY

A Fruitless Fig Tree

After Sunday’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, with the shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” still ringing in his ears, Jesus retreated to Bethany for the night. Early the next morning, a hungry Jesus trekked back to Jerusalem. I suspect the pain in his empty stomach mixed with the pain in his heart over the scene he witnessed the previous day in his Father’s house.

In the distance, he spotted a fig tree full of leaves. Good sign. Many leaves means much fruit when it comes to fig trees. Breakfast, coming up!

But where there should have been much fruit, Jesus found only leaves. Mark’s account disclosed it wasn’t the season for figs. So, at first, I wondered why Jesus would be disappointed and angry because the tree had no produce. But then I learned figs typically bud prior to the leaves. So when a fig tree is full of large leaves one can expect it to be laden with fruit.

From a distance, this tree appeared fruitful, but upon closer inspection it had nothing of substance to offer a hungry man. Like a mirage in the desert beckoning the parched wanderer, it mocked the one in need. It wasn’t fulfilling its purpose to produce fruit. Angry, Jesus caused the fruitless tree to wither and die. No longer would it flutter its attention-getting leaves, calling out empty promises to those who hunger.

Fruitless Faith

Jesus saw more than a fruitless tree. He saw a perfect metaphor for the state of the Temple and its religious leaders. People from all over had streamed into Jerusalem for the Passover. They hungered for communion with the Lord and eagerly anticipated worshiping in the Temple. Yet, when they finally arrived, their need went unmet.

The religious leaders crammed the Temple’s outer court with corrupt money changers and animals for purchase. This sacred space was squalid with corruption, chaos, and cynicism.

Instead of praying, Jesus saw preying.

The scribes and Pharisees looked oh so righteous in their robes and places of honor. But the very ones with the responsibility to shepherd God’s people—to guard, feed, and lead them—were preying upon them.

Instead of ushering the blind, the lame, and the foreigner into the place of prayer, these guardians of the Temple created obstacles to their worship.

The ones expected to model and lead God’s people had all the showy leaves of righteousness but none of the fruit. No wonder Jesus was angry. He had every right to be.

Jesus used the fig tree to provide an object lesson to his disciples.

These men would soon become shepherds of the early church, stewards of the gospel. They must understand the consequences of being all show and no substance.

For three years Jesus taught them what it meant to be kingdom people and servant leaders. Yet, they still struggled to grasp the concept, much less the stakes.

They were still jockeying for power and position in an altogether different kind of kingdom than the one Jesus was ushering in (see Mark 10:35-45).

They focused on temporal things not eternal. The waving palm branches and shouts of praise distracted them from the reality for which Jesus was preparing them.

They were caught up in the cries of “Hosanna” and not ready for the cries of “Crucify him!”

So, Jesus used the fruitless fig tree to get their attention and teach them an important lesson.

A Fruitful Faith and Prayer Life

Both Matthew and Mark wrapped up their accounts of this story with Jesus’ hyperbolic instructions to his disciples about faith and prayer.

Do you want to prevent a show of leaves with no fruit? Do you want to overcome obstacles to the advance of the kingdom? The key is faith and prayer.

A fruitful faith and prayer life…

  • Exhibit confidence, not in self, but in God.
  • Tether the disciple’s will to God’s.
  • Remind the disciple of the mercy and grace shown to him by God and thus prompt the disciple to offer mercy and grace to others.

Linger, Listen, and Learn

I had sat down with my Bible expecting to spend a few minutes reviewing the events of Holy Week. Honestly, I was kinda going through the motions; checking off my Bible reading while my mind focused on deadlines and to do lists. Leaves were fluttering all about, I tell you, but nary a fig was in sight.

God would have none of that. As is often the case, he intrigued my mind then quickened my heart.

Hours of study and prayer later, I sat with my notes, computer, books and Bible scattered across the table; my soul sobered.

I didn’t accomplish all the things on my to do list that day. I didn’t make my deadline for publishing my blog post. Instead, I experienced a profound sense of conviction and realization.

I’m no different from the people in this story. I follow Jesus trying to learn what he is teaching me. Yet I often miss the mark and get my focus on the wrong things.

If I ignore the Holy Spirit’s conviction and allow this to persist, the inevitable outcome is only leaves where there should be fruit.

Recently, God prompted me to step out of a couple of teaching and administrative positions. I thought maybe it was so I could spend more time on this writing and speaking ministry. And that may be.

However, I’m beginning to think he is pruning away some leaves. Perhaps, he is asking me for less learning and more living (putting into practice the things I’ve learned). Less thinking, more praying. Less leaves, more fruit.

Does Your Relationship with Christ Need Some Strengthening?

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  • Marian

    I started learning what it means to be a good steward in my first Disciple Bible study 12 years ago. I don’t think I had any concept of what that meant before then. We talk a lot about what it means to be a good steward of our God-given resources and how to be a good steward of His creation. Recently I’ve begun to learn what it means to be a good steward of God’s grace. I haven’t been and I want to be.

    • Wow! I love that concept of being a good steward of God’s grace. I have to tell you, that you were on my mind as I wrote this post. You have been such an example to me of someone who has really produced some amazing fruit. I want to be more like you in that respect! Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thought-provoking comment.

  • Mary

    Very thought provoking (more fruit less leaves). This definitely hit home! Thank you, Laura!

    • So glad it was helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment!

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