Indeed, "fig-trees may still be seen overhanging the ordinary road from Jerusalem to Bethany, growing out of the rocks of the solid mountain, which, by the prayer of faith, might 'be removed and cast into the (distant Mediterranean) Sea.'" An incident connected with one of these is too intimately identified with the Redeemer's last journeys to and from the home of His friend to admit of exclusion from our "Bethany Memories." These memories have hitherto, for the most part, in connexion at least with our blessed Lord, been soothing, hallowed, encouraging. Here the "still small voice" is for once broken with sterner accents. In contrast with the bright background of other sunny pictures, we have, standing out in bold relief, a withered, sapless stem, impressively proclaiming, in unwonted utterances of wrath and rebuke, that the same hand is "strong to smite," which we have witnessed so lately in the case of Lazarus was "strong to save."
The eye of Jesus, as he traversed the rocky path with His disciples, rested on a Fig-tree. (Mark xi.12, 13.) It seems not to have been growing alone, but formed part of a group or plantation on one of the slopes or ravines of Olivet. Its appearance could not fail to challenge attention. It was now only the Passover season (the month of April); summer -- the time for ripe figs -- was yet distant; and as it is one of the peculiarities of the tree that the fruit appears before the leaves, a considerable period, in the ordinary course of nature, ought to have elapsed before the foliage was matured. Jesus Himself, it will be remembered, on another occasion, spake of the putting forth of the fig-tree leaves as an indication that "summer was nigh." It must have been, therefore, a strange and unusual sight which met the eye of the travellers as they gazed, in early spring, on one of these trees with its full complement of leaves -- clad in full summer luxuriance. While the others in the plantation, true to the order of development, were yet bare and leafless, or else the buds of spring only flushing them with verdure, the broad leaves of this precocious (and we may think at first favoured) plant -- the pioneer of surrounding vegetation -- rustled in the morning breeze, and invited the passers-by to turn aside, examine the marvel, and pluck the fruit.
We may confidently infer that Jesus, as the Omniscient Lord of the inanimate creation, knew well that fruit there was none under that pretentious foliage. We dare not suppose that He went expecting to find Figs; far less, that in a moment of disappointed hope, He ventured on a capricious exercise of His power, uttered a hasty malediction, and condemned the insensate boughs to barrenness and decay. The first cursory reading of the narrative may suggest some such unworthy impression. But we dismiss it at once, as strangely at variance with the Saviour's character, and strangely unlike His wonted actings. We feel assured that He literally, as well as figuratively, would not "break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax." He came, in all respects, "not to destroy, but to save." Some deep inner meaning, not apparent on the surface of the inspired story, must have led Him for the moment to regard a tree in the light of a responsible agent, and to address it in words of unusual severity.
What, then, is the explanation? Our Lord on this occasion revives the old typical or picture-teaching with which the Hebrews were to that hour so familiar. He, as the greatest of prophets, adopts the significant and impressive method, not unfrequently employed by the Seers of Israel, who, in uttering startling and solemn truths, did so by means of symbolic actions. As Jeremiah of old dashed the potter's vessel down the Valley of Hinnom, to indicate the judgments that were about to befall Jerusalem; or, at another time, wore around his own neck a wooden yoke, to intimate their approaching bondage under the King of Babylon; or, as Isaiah "walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and Ethiopia," so did our Lord now invest a tree in dumb nature with a prophet's warning voice, and make its stripped and blighted boughs eloquent of a nation's doom!
On the height of their own Olivet, looking down, as it were, on Jerusalem, that fig-tree becomes a stern messenger of woe and vengeance to the whole house of Judah. Often before had he warned by His words and tears; now He is to make an insignificant object in the outer world take up His prophecy, and testify to the degenerate people at once the cause, the suddenness, and the certainty of their destruction! Let us join, then, the Master and His disciples, as they stand on the crest above Bethany, and, gazing on that fruitless leaf-bearer, "hear this parable of the fig-tree."
Jesus, on approaching it (it seemed to be at a little distance from their path), and finding abundance of leaves, but no fruit thereon, condemns it to perpetual sterility and barrenness.
A difficulty here occurs on the threshold of the narrative. If, as we have noted, and as St Mark tells us, "the time of figs was not yet" -- why this seeming impatience -- why this harsh sentence for not having what, if found, would have been unseasonable, untimely, abnormal?
In this apparent difficulty lies the main truth and zest of the parable. The doom of sterility, be it carefully noted, was uttered by Jesus, not so much because of the absence of fruit, but because the tree, by its premature display of leaves, challenged expectations which a closer inspection did not realise. "It was punished," says an able writer, "not for being without fruit, but for proclaiming, by the voice of those leaves, that it had such. Not for being barren, but for being false."
Graphic picture of boastful and vaunting Israel! This conspicuous tree, nigh one of the frequented paths of Olivet, was no inappropriate type, surely, of that nation which stood illustrious amid the world's kingdoms -- exalted to heaven with unexampled privileges which it abused -- proudly claiming a righteousness which, when weighed in the balances, was found utterly wanting. It mattered not that the heathen nations were as guilty, vile, and corrupt as the chosen people. Fig-trees were they, too -- naked stems, fruitless and leafless; but then they made no boastful pretensions. The Jews had, in the face of the world, been glorying in a righteousness which, in reality, was only like the foliage of that tree by which the Lord and His disciples now stood -- mocking the expectations of its owner by mere outward semblance and an utter absence of fruit.
The very day preceding, these mournful deficiencies had brought tears to the Saviour's eyes -- stirred the depths of His yearning heart in the very hour of His triumph. He had looked down from the height of the mountain on the gilded splendours of the Temple Courts beneath; but, alas! He saw that sanctimonious hypocrisy and self-righteous formalism had sheltered themselves behind clouds of incense. Mammon, covetousness, oppression, fraud, were rising like strange fire from these defiled altars!
He turns the tears of yesterday into an expressive and enduring parable to-day! He approaches a luxuriant Fig-tree, boasting great things among its fellows, and thus through it He addresses a doomed city and devoted land, -- "O House of Israel," He seems to say, "I have come up for the last time to your highest and most ancient festival. You stand forth in the midst of the nations of the earth clothed in rich verdure. You retain intact the splendour of your ancestral ritual. You boast of your rigid adherence to its outward ceremonial, the punctilious observance of your fasts and feasts. But I have found that it is but 'a name to live.' You sinfully ignore 'the weightier matters of the law, judgment, justice, and mercy!' You call out as you tread that gorgeous fane -- 'The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord are we!' You forget that your hearts are the Temple I prize! Holiness, the most acceptable incense -- love to God, and love to man, the most pleasing sacrifice. All that dead and torpid formalism -- that mockery of outward foliage -- is to me nothing. 'Your new moons and Sabbaths -- the calling of assemblies -- I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting.' These are only as the whitewash of your sepulchres to hide the loathsomeness within -- 'the rottenness and dead men's bones!' If you had made no impious pretensions, I would not, peradventure, have dealt so sternly with you. If like the other trees you had confessed your nakedness, and stood with your leafless stems, waiting for summer suns, and dews, and rains, to fructify you, and to bring your fruit to perfection -- all well; but you have sought to mock and deceive me by your falsity, and thus precipitated the doom of the cumberer. 'Henceforth, let no man eat fruit of thee for ever!'"
The unconscious Tree listened! One night only passed, and the morrow found it with drooping leaf and blighted stem! On yonder mountain crest it stood, as a sign between heaven and earth of impending judgment. Eighteen hundred years have taken up its parable -- fearfully authenticated the averments of the August Speaker! Israel, a bared, leafless, sapless trunk, testifies to this hour, before the nations, that "heaven and earth may pass away, but God's words will not pass away!"
But does the parable stop here? Was there no voice but for the ear of Judah and Jerusalem? Have we no part in these solemn monitions?
Ah! be assured, as Jesus dealt with nations so will He deal with individuals. This parable-miracle solemnly speaks to all who have only a name to live -- the foliage of outward profession -- but who are destitute of the "fruits of righteousness." It is not neglecters or despisers -- the careless -- the infidel -- the scorner -- our Lord here addresses. He deals with such elsewhere. It is rather vaunting hypocrites -- wearing the garb of religion -- the trappings and dress of outward devotion to conceal their inward pollution; like the ivy, screening from view by garlands of fantastic beauty -- wreaths of loveliest green -- the mouldering trunk or loathsome ruin! We may well believe none are more obnoxious to a holy Saviour than such. He (Incarnate TRUTH) would rather have the naked stem than the counterfeit blossom. He would rather have no gold than be mocked with tinsel and base alloy! "I would," says He, speaking to one of His Churches at a later time, "I would thou wert cold or hot." He would rather a man openly avowed his enmity than that he should come in disguise, with a traitor-heart, among the ranks of His people. Oh that all such ungodly boasters and pretenders would bear in mind, that not only do they inflict harm on themselves, but they do infinite damage to the Church of God. They lower the standard of godliness. Like that worthless Fig-tree, they help to hide out from others the glorious sunlight. They intercept from others the refreshing dews of heaven. They absorb in their leaves the rains as they fall. Many a tuft of tiny moss, many a lowly plant at their feet, is pining and withering, which, but for them, would be bathing its tints in sunshine, and filling the air with balmy fragrance!
Solemn, then, ought to be the question with every one of us -- every Fig-tree in the Lord's plantation -- How does it stand with me? am I now bringing forth fruit to God? for remember what we are NOW, will fix what we shall be when our Lord shall come on the Great Day of Scrutiny! We are forming now for Eternity; settling down and consolidating in the great mould which ultimately will determine our everlasting state; fruitless now, we shall be fruitless then. The principle in the future retribution is thus laid down -- "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still." The demand and scrutiny of Jesus will on that day be, not what is the number of your leaves, the height of your stem, the extent of your branches? not whether you have grown on the wayside or in the forest, been nurtured in solitude or in a crowd, on the mountain-height or in the lowly valley: all will resolve itself into the one question -- Where is your fruit? What evidence is there that you have profited by My admonitions, listened to My voice, and accepted My salvation? Where are your proofs of love to Myself, delight in My service, obedience to My will? Where are the sins you have crucified, the sacrifices you have made, the new principles you have nurtured, the amiability and love and kindness and generosity and unselfishness which have supplanted and superseded baser affections? See that the leaves of outward profession be not a snare to you. You may be lulling yourselves to sleep with delusive opiates. You may be making these false coverings an apology for resisting the "putting on of the armour of light." One has no difficulty in persuading the tenant of a wretched hovel to consent to have his mud-hut taken down; but the man who has the walls of his dwelling hung with gaudy drapery, it is hard to persuade him that his house is worthless and his foundation insecure. Think not that privileges or creeds, or church-sect or church-membership, or the Shibboleth of party will save you. It is to the heart that God looks. If the inner spirit be right, the outer conduct will be fruitful in righteousness. Make it not your worthless ambition to APPEAR to be holy, but be holy! Live not a "dying life" -- that blank existence which brings neither glory to God nor good to men. Seek that while you live, the world may be the better for you, and when you die the world may miss you. Unlike the pretentious tree in our parable-text, be it yours rather to have the nobler character and recompense, so beautifully delineated under a similar figure three thousand years ago -- "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season. His leaf, also, shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper."
Let us further learn, from this solemn and impressive miracle, how true Christ is to His word. We think of Him as true to His promises, do we think of Him, also, as true to His threatenings? Judgment, indeed, is His strange work. Amid a multitude of other prodigies already performed by Him, this "cursing" of the fig-tree formed the alone exception to His miracles of mercy. All the others were proofs and illustrations of beneficence, compassion, love. But He seems to interpose this ONE, in case we should forget, in the affluence of benignity and kindness, that the same God, whose name and memorial is "merciful and gracious," has solemnly added that "He can by no means clear the guilty." He would have us to remember that there is a point beyond which even His love cannot go, when the voice of ineffable Goodness must melt and merge into tones of stern wrath and vengeance. The guilty may, for the brief earthly hour of their impenitence, affect to despise His divine warnings, laugh to scorn His solemn expostulations. Sentence may not be executed speedily; amazing patience may ward off the descending blow. They may, from the very forbearance of Jesus, take impious encouragement to defy His threats, and rush swifter to their own destruction. But come He will and must to assert His claims as "He that is HOLY, He that is TRUE." The disciples, on the present occasion, heard the voice of their Master. They gazed on the doomed Fig-tree, but there seemed at the moment to be no visible change on its leaves. As they took their final glance ere passing on their way, no blight seemed to descend, no worm to prey on its roots. The fowls of Heaven may have appeared soaring in the sky, eager to nestle as before on its branches, and to bathe their plumage on the dew-drops that drenched its foliage. But was the word of Jesus in vain? Did that fig-tree take up a responsive parable, and say, "Who made Thee a ruler and a judge over me?"
The Lord and His apostles passed the place a few hours afterwards on their return to Bethany. But though the Passover moon was shining on their path, the darkness, and perhaps the distance from the highway, veiled from their view the too truthful doom to be revealed in morning light. As the dawn of day (Tuesday) finds them once more on their road to Jerusalem, the eyes of the disciples wander towards the spot to see whether the words of yesterday have proved to be indeed solemn verities. One glance is enough! There it stands in impressive memorial. One night had done the work. No desert simoom, if it had passed over it, could have effected it more thoroughly. Its leaves were shrivelled, its sap dried, its glory gone. Ever and anon afterwards, as the disciples crossed the mountain, and as they gazed on this silent "preacher," they would be reminded that Jehovah-Jesus, their loving Master, was not "a man that He should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent."
Ah! Reader, learn from all this, that the wrathful utterances of the Saviour are no idle threats. He means what He says! He is "the Faithful and True witness;" and though "mercy and truth go continually before His face," "justice and judgment are the habitation of His throne." You may be scorning His message -- lulling yourself into a dream of guilty indifference. You may see in His daily dealings no sign or symbol of coming retribution; you may be echoing the old challenge of the presumptuous scoffer -- "Where is the promise of His coming?" The fig leaves may have lost none of their verdure -- the sky may be unfretted by one vengeful cloud -- nature, around you, may be hushed and still. You can hear no footsteps of wrath; you may be even tempted at times to think that all is a dream -- that credulity has suffered itself to be duped by a counterfeit tale of superstitious terror! Or if, in better moments, you awake to a consciousness of the Bible averments being stern realities, your next subterfuge is to trust to that rope of sand to which thousands have clung, to the wreck of their eternities -- an indefinite dreamy hope in the final mercy of God! that on the Great Day the threatenings of Jesus will undergo some modification; that He will not carry out to the very letter the full weight of His denunciations; that the arm which love nailed to the cross of Calvary will sheathe the sword of avenging retribution, and proclaim a universal amnesty to the thronging myriads at His tribunal!
"Nay! O man, who art thou that repliest against God?" Come to the fig-tree "over against" Bethany, and let it be a dumb attesting witness to the Saviour's unswerving and immutable truthfulness! Or, passing from the sign to the thing symbolised, behold that nation which God has for eighteen centuries set up in the world as a monument of His undeviating adherence to His Word. See how, in their case, to the letter He has fulfilled His threatenings. Is not this fulfillment intended as an awful foreshadowing of eternal verities: if He has "spared not the natural branches," thinkest thou He will spare thee? "If these things were done in the green tree, what will be done in the dry?"
Mourners! You for whose comfort these pages are specially designed, is there no lesson of consolation to be drawn from this solemn "memory?" Jesus smote down that fig-tree -- blasted and blighted it. Never again did He come to seek fruit on it. Ten thousand other buds in the Fig-forest around were opening their fragrant lips to drink in the refreshing dews of spring; but the curse of perpetual sterility rested on this!
He has smitten you also, but it is only to heal! He has bared your branches -- stripped you of your verdure -- broken "your staff and your beautiful rod;" but the pruning hook has been used to promote the Vigour of the tree; to lop off the redundant branches, and open the stems to the gladsome sunlight. Murmur not! Remember, but for these loppings of affliction you might have effloresced into the rank luxuriant growth of mere external profession. You might have rested satisfied with the outward display of Religiousness, without the fruits of true Religion. You might have lived and died unproductive cumberers, deceiving others and deceiving yourselves. But He would not suffer you to linger in this state of worthless barrenness. Oh! better far, surely, these severest cuttings and incisions of the pruning knife, than to listen to the stern words -- "Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone!" It is the most terrible of all judgments when God leaves a sinner undisturbed in his sinfulness -- abandons him to "the fruit of his own ways, and to be filled with his own devices;" until, like a tree impervious to moistening dews and fructifying heat, he dwarfs and dwindles into the last hopeless stage of spiritual decay and death!
"If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not?"
"He purgeth it (pruneth it), that it may bring forth MORE FRUIT."