Of trees and fruit

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In the previous article we read about Lazarus of Bethany and the name of the village, made of two words: beth, meaning “house” and te’enah meaning “fig” בֵּית־תְּאֵנָה (beit-te’enah) literally “house of figs.” On Mark chapter 11 we read about how Jesus enters triumphantly in Jerusalem, it is the first day of the week, a Sunday and Jesus goes into the temple and inspects everything. That is the final purpose of his ministry and the inspection occurs late in the day. The eschatological figure is inescapable this time and it will be repeated at the end of times when Jesus comes to inspect the Church at last. Attached to this most important scene we find the story of the cursing of the fig tree.

Mark 11:11-26 — Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.

Some wonder why Jesus used that poor fig tree to present us with a metaphor of the end of the Jewish liturgical age. Environmentalists may not like this but a tree is just a tree. St Joseph and young Jesus likely felled a tree occasionally to make wood for their carpentry business. The wood of fig trees however is not really useful for carpentry, so when a fig tree does not produce its sweet fruit is likely to end its days as firewood. In cursing the fruitless tree, Jesus merely accelerated the process.

The withered fig tree

Mark 11: 20-25 — In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. ‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, the people recognize him as the Messiah. That very scene fulfills a messianic prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

To leave no doubt that he is fulfilling that prophecy, Jesus goes on using language very similar to Zechariah’s prophecy against Tyre: “Tyre has built itself a rampart, and heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets. But now, the Lord will strip it of its possessions and hurl its wealth into the sea, and it shall be devoured by fire.”[1] (Zechariah 9:3-4) Only a few decades later Jerusalem would be also devoured by fire and her inhabitants would be “thrown into the sea” so to speak, as those who survived the siege would be sold into slavery and spread all over the Roman Empire.

The end phrase of the teaching must have sounded strange to the disciples: that extraordinary strength is connected to forgiveness. Just a few days later, while hanging on the Cross at Mount Calvary, Jesus will forgive Jerusalem saying, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing.” I believe that supreme act of forgiveness is what determines the final destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple. Jesus forgives those who have killed him; in doing so he surrenders his right to avenge himself to the Father. Justice will come to fruitless Jerusalem in 70 a. D. “because she did not discern the time of her inspection.” The withered fig tree stood as a parable of how God deals with hypocrisy. The Temple, the sacrifices, and all the pious works of religious Jews were like the leaves on the fruitless fig tree: the appearance of righteousness without fruits of repentance.

Jesus and Zacchaeus

Jesus is coming to Jerusalem from Jericho. In that pilgrimage he reproduces symbolically the history of Israel. Jericho is the first city conquered by the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land, while Jerusalem was the last city they conquered many generations before. Jericho surrendered to Joshua (in Hebrew Joshua and Jesus have the same name, Yehoshua, יְהוֹשׁ֫וּעַ) and Jerusalem was taken by king David.

At the beginning of his last pilgrimage, Jesus met a man in Jericho.

Luke 19:1-10 — He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

Jesus meets Zacchaeus at the opposite end of his trip from Jericho to Jerusalem. The man from Jericho has discerned the time of inspection. He wants to see Jesus, he is anxious to meet him. Because he is short in stature, he climbs to a tree and waits there. Jesus sees him up there and asks him to come down. Zacchaeus is “good fruit” waiting on the tree to be picked up by the Messiah. Without being asked he shows fruits of repentance: half of his possessions he will give to the poor, and he will fulfill the Law of Moses by returning four times what he has exacted unjustly from others. Zacchaeus’ reward is rich: Jesus comes into his house.

Those who see Jesus go into Zacchaeus home say: ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ The repentant man is different; in fact he is exactly the opposite of the fig tree of Jerusalem. He appears to bear no fruit – some see nothing worthy in him – while the cursed tree appears to bear fruit even out of season but in fact it has nothing to offer. Zacchaeus wisely discerned that the “season” to give fruits of repentance had arrived. The season is not a certain predetermined time of the year. The season to be fruitful starts when Jesus is passing by.


[1] Tyre and Jerusalem share a history of double destruction. Tyre was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 573 b. C. and later by Alexander the Great in 332 b. C. thus fulfilling the prophecies of Ezekiel and Zechariah.

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4 thoughts on “Of trees and fruit

  1. I so much enjoy good exegesis. It is something sadly lacking from the pulpits of most of our churches. The image of the fruit in the tree (Zacchaeus) is at once obvious and yet was hidden from me all of these years. The richness of Scripture and how it folds continually back on itself like the best pasty is thrilling. But it must be pointed out.

    We are living through a year of mercy without judgment and seemingly without repentance. Mercy (as pointed out by David Warren among others recently) must follow judgment and repentance or it is meaningless. Coming before repentance, it makes sin meaningless as well and robs it of gravitas.

    The prodigal son (my favorite of all of the parables) must turn back to the father in order to be received by him. The meaning of repentance contains the image of turning away: from sin, from the unfruitful path, and of turning back to the father. It is more a turning than an apology or an expression of regret. The act of turning around changes one’s world view. The act of returning opposes progress. It casts off faith in a dreamlike (and impossible) future for the acceptance of our condition as it truly is. Only in that acceptance is mercy possible. We have been eating pig’s slop in a famine and calling it culture.

    It is said that heaven rejoices over the return to the fold of a single sinner. Each is a fruit of the good news. I note that not all fig trees were cursed and withered, but only the tree with no fruit. There is a powerful message for our individual churches today. Let them with ears to hear pay attention.

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  2. Hey, Carlos. Nice meditations – I too like to meditate upon the parables-in-act of the Gospels. I wanted to tell you that actually, fig trees are one of the few or only trees whose fruit comes after the leaves. If the leaves are there, there should be early fruit, green and dry but nourishing. The tree in the Gospel had all the appearance of fruit, all the showy leaves, but not fruit at all.

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