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Clear Words

Clear Words – Leaves, and no fruit… (Matthew 21:18-20)

Today’s Reading: Matthew 21-22

Today’s Reflection: Matthew 21:18-20

18) In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19) And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.  20) When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”

This text is one of those stories that leaves (pun intended) many wondering what exactly the point is.  It seems like a fairly simple scenario: Jesus is hungry, sees a fruit tree—a fig tree specifically—and goes to it for sustinance only to find it bare of anything but leaves.  He curses the tree and it promptly withers in front of them.  So why curse the tree?  And what does the tree withering away mean?

First of all, the fact that it is a fig tree is significant.  Fig trees get their fruit before leaves grow in, so to find a fig tree with leaves should mean you’ve found a fig tree with fruit.  But not so in this case.  This tree was an abomination—defying the natural order of what ought to be.  And Jesus cursed it for this reason.  But even so, what does this mean for us?  Well, a tree is often used as an analogy for a righteous person, as in Psalms 1.

1) Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2) but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.  3) He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.  In all that he does, he prospers.

For such a person, fruit is the outgrowth their character.  And why fruit?  Fruit is life-sustaining food that can be used to nourish others.  What about the leaves?  These are something like a person’s outward appearance and actions, which should be a reflection of their internal life.  As with the fig tree, the presence of leave should indicate that life-giving fruit is present.

But what if it isn’t there?

What if a person outwardly looked like a righteous person, a servant of God, but inwardly was not?  What if they had the ‘leaves’ of appearing righteous, but no ‘fruit’ of faithful substance?  That person might attract those hungering for the truth, hungering for knowledge of God, hungering for the love followers of Jesus are supposed to have for each other.  That person might attract those hungry for the sustenance, the nourishment, the life to be found in Jesus.  And that person would leave those who came to them hungry unsatisfied, for they would find no such sustenance, no nourishment, no life.  They would find emptiness—pretty leaves, but no fruit.  They might even curse God as a fraud because of the hypocrisy of His followers.

Romans 2:24 – For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

So it should be clear now why Jesus cursed the tree.  Hypocrites are the greatest threat to His work—those who claim to follow Him but truly do not.  This is why Jesus harshest words were not for prostitutes, or drunkards, or traitorous tax collectors, or even for pagans, but for the Pharisees—those who had the outward appearance of fruitfulness, but were barren, deceiving those who came to them seeking the ways of life.  This is also a warning—if we fall into the trap of becoming similarly hypocritical, of focusing on the external appearance of righteousness while ignoring the heart surrender to God required for true worship, this curse will rest upon us as well.

Matthew 23:27-28 – 27) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28) So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

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