“Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered”. Matthew 21:19
There is a children’s hymn by Charles Wesley that captures a sense of how many people feel about Jesus.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
If we take certain texts of Scripture to the exclusion of others, particularly those concerned with Jesus as the Good Shepherd and those that show Jesus’ concern for children, we can easily build up a picture of someone who is soft and timid. Jesus can become seen as someone who would saying nothing that was harsh; someone who would never pass judgment; someone who would definitely never raise his hand in violence.
Yet ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ does not describe the Jesus whom we encounter in Saint Matthew Chapter 21. There is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the crowds cheering him along the way; this is not the behaviour of a timid person. The ride into Jerusalem is followed by Jesus going into the Temple and driving out the money changers and the traders; he uses physical force as he does so, using a whip and turning over the tables. Gentleness and meekness are no part of the cleansing of the Temple.
The following day, Jesus is going back into the city and encounters the fig tree that has no fruit—’may you never bear fruit again’, he says. They are withering words; the tree dies.
Reading the account of the cursing of the fig tree, perhaps we might think about that word ‘withered’. Firstly, what the withering of the tree says to us about our attitude as Christians, and, secondly, what the withering says about our relationship with God. We can see the story of the tree both as an example and as a parable.
What about Jesus’ behaviour? What about his cursing of the tree? What does it say to us? It’s not the sort of Christian attitude to which we are accustomed
As Christians, we are brought up from our earliest age to be polite, to smile, to be tolerant, to accept whatever happens to us, to turn the other cheek. Anyone familiar with the television series The Simpsons will probably have seen Homer Simpson’s Christian neighbour Ned Flanders. Flanders accepts everything that happens to him with good grace. Ned Flanders is a drip, he is completely wet, Ned Flanders never stands up for himself, even when he’s in the right.
We have taken Jesus’ command, that we shouldn’t judge others in case we are judged ourselves, to the extreme where we feel we shouldn’t say anything to anyone about anything. We’ve probably heard the saying that we shouldn’t criticize another man until we’ve walked a mile in his shoes. It has been so overused that it has taken on a humorous form, ‘Don’t criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes, because by then he will be a mile away and you will have his shoes’.
There sometimes seems to be almost an expectation that Christians are to be doormats for everyone. Amongst the politically correct people in our world, Christians are the villains. We are to accept every insult and every attack and must not protest when the media make little of our faith. When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek he surely did not envisage that would include meekly turning a blind eye to things we knew were wrong. Are there not times when it’s OK to be cross about things? Are there not things we should be bad tempered about?
The Jesus we encounter on the Sunday and Monday of his final week in Jerusalem is a far remove from Ned Flanders. He is clear and open in his denunciation of those who have profaned the Temple and exploited the people. He is a doormat for no-one. Does such a Jesus expect his followers to live in the world passively and without protest?
Jesus withers that tree with his words. Perhaps it is a sign of his anger at those whom he has met in the city who have not produced in their lives the fruit that God expected of them. Perhaps it is a sign that Jesus recognizes that the tree is not going to produce fruit, and he simply declares the truth about it. Whatever Jesus’ motivation, it is not meek and mild.
‘Withered’ speaks to us about the sort of person Jesus was; it also speaks to us about our own personal relationship with God.
The tree dies because God has turned away from it. God does not turn away from us, but we are free to turn away from him. It is the nature of God’s grace that it is a gift; it is something that we can choose to accept or choose to refuse. God does not compel us to believe; he does not compel us to follow him; it is our choice.
Charles Coffin’s 18th Century hymn, ‘On Jordan’s bank’, includes the lines:
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
Coffin’s lines are saying that we are free to turn away, but in doing so we cut ourselves off from God’s grace; we waste away; we wither.
We look at that tree and it is a parable of life without God; life which does not produce the fruit it might have done; life which is spiritually dry, arid, dead.
Saint John Vianney, the 19th Century Catholic priest, who ministered in the French village of Ars, told a story of a farmer who went into the church each day to pray. When the priest asked the farmer about his daily prayers, the farmer replied, ‘I just look at him, and he looks back at me’. It is a picture of a very simple but very deep relationship with God, but if we are like a tree that is withered, then that relationship is not possible. God still looks at us; but we have turned our backs on him.
‘Withered’ is a word which we would easily pass without notice; the story of the fig tree is easily lost against the background of the great events that are taking place. Yet, when we look closer, it is an important word; it asks us questions.
How do we see Jesus and how do we live lives that follow his example?
How is our relationship with God? Do we lives lives that are all that they could be? Or are we like flowers that wither and decay?
Withered. How do we respond?