Westboro Baptist Church gained worldwide infamy through their anti-gay (probably anti- a lot of things) protest built around slogans like “God Hates Fags.” One of the slightly humorous counter protests took an image from the gospel record of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Matthew 21 and Mark 11) with the slogan “God Hates Figs.” This story is both well-known and has a mystery about it that has created a lot of comment. I can’t remember any commentator suggesting that God might have a divine dislike for fig trees – as per the counter-protest slogan of the gay activists in the photo, but there certainly has been a lot of conjecture through Christian history.
There is no doubt, “Fig-Gate” has a mystery about it. It happened on the second day of the final week in Jerusalem before the crucifixion. Jesus and the disciples were on their way into the city. Jesus was hungry and went to grab a few figs from the tree. When he found no fruit (when it was not the season for figs), he made a pronouncement about the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Very, very weird. This story happens in two phases. If we only knew about the first part of the story it would have raised a bunch of questions without answers: Why did Jesus go to a fig tree to get something to eat when it wasn’t the season for figs? Why, when he found no fruit on the tree did he speak to it in such a way?
When the disciples watched this happening and heard what he said they must have been more than a little mystified. But they walked on and walked back home that night and thought nothing more about it. They were surprised next morning. Not only was the fig tree withered in a single day, but it had withered from the roots upward. In other words, supernaturally on both counts.
Is it possible that God hates figs? Of course, the answer is, “No.” But an explanation is still needed. As a testament to the degree of mystery here, the larger body of opinion has suggested this as a symbolic act by Jesus. The idea assumes that the fig tree is a symbol for fruitless Israel and his pronouncement, a prophetic foreshadowing of the destruction of the temple. While I understand the rationale, especially looking back through the window of that far-reaching catastrophe, it’s assumptions are not supported anywhere in the story itself and struggle for any direct evidence elsewhere. My way of putting any theory to the test is to re-read the whole story with the hypothesis in mind and see if it fits the whole. The idea that this was a symbolic prophetic act on the part of Jesus with his disciples makes the second part of the story a nonsense. If Jesus was carrying out a prophetic act as a rebuke to the fruitlessness of Israel, he doesn’t make a single reference to it when questioned the next day by Peter. What he refers to instead is the issue of faith in God. Not a general trust either, but the faith that precipitates specific supernatural intervention – like a tree withering from the roots upward.
If Jesus had been wanting to make a prophetic statement about Israel by cursing a fig tree, surely he would have talked about it when the disciples noticed what had happened? My way of understanding Biblical meaning is to allow the immediate context to provide the evidence. We look at the evidence offered and then we can discover meaning and then the message. The second part of the story provides this evidence for us.
When Jesus and the disciples arrive and see a supernaturally withered tree, Peter is the one to share his astonishment. Rather than referring to fruitless Israel, Jesus describes what they see is an object lesson on the matter of having faith in God. Here is the quote:
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Let me re-present of the information offered by Jesus as a set of interpretive statements:
- He calls on them to be people who, in the normal flow of daily events [e.g. walking from Bethany to Jerusalem], are willing to be used by God to intervene in ordinary circumstances.
- He says that there are virtually no limits to supernatural activity where God’s purposes are involved – It is possible for mountains to be thrown into the sea.
- This faith becomes operative through prayer.
- Genuine faith is something that happens within a person’s heart before they do or say anything. A person to know in their heart what God wants to do. They experience the total assurance of that inside of them before anything else happens.
- For the faith process to be activated, a person needs to speak out those things from a supernaturally assured heart, based on what God intends to do.
- When they speak to God in this way, God will bring the matter to pass by supernatural power.
- A person’s capacity to gain this assurance will depend on their heart being purified from things like unforgiveness. Our relationships with others have direct impact on our capacity to discover God’s presence and purpose.
If we read the first part of the story again, through the lens of the context we get a better understanding of what Jesus was doing. It would appear that Jesus went to the tree with this ‘faith-in-God’ lesson in mind. His comment about hunger and the fact that it was out of season served to aid their memory. Jesus was modeling the lesson in what he did and said. He was exercising faith in God, and knew what was going to happen to the tree when he spoke the words. When they arrived at the tree and it was bare, he was not surprised like the disciples were. His dissertation about faith was merely describing things that had happened in and through him which the disciples wouldn’t have known if he didn’t make it known.
When we take the immediate context as the primary tool for understanding the story is the message, and the message is the story, not just one part of it at the expense of another part. God doesn’t hate figs. He does use fig trees to teach his followers what it is like to exercise faith.
This story enables us to discover the process involved in having faith in God. It models faith for us. The first thing happens in our hearts as we discover what God wants to do before they happen. Since our hearts are the crucible for God’s ‘yet-to-be-enacted’ work, they need to be purified from things such as unforgiveness so that we will not pollute what God wants to make known and our motives as well as our actions will reflect His nature and purpose. Based on this assurance (cp. Hebrews 11:1) we can then speak with authority from God and based upon that proclamation God brings about his kingdom purpose. We can see this pattern right through the ministry of Jesus. Whether it was healing, forgiveness, casting out demons or stopping storms, it is entirely consistent with the ‘Fig-Gate’ event for faith to operate in this way.
I need to say by way of postscript that there will be no presumption that we will always have this inner assurance before a proclamation. We are not perfect, and God’s grace covers all kinds of shortcomings. It is true that we can grow in our understanding of faith in God and learn to operate more and more out of the assurance of our hearts rather than the presumption of our minds – or our mouths at times. We ought to be encouraged to allow God to work in our hearts and to learn to recognise what God has and hasn’t put there by way of supernatural assurance. We ought also to be warned that just saying something with our mouths does no always mean we are speaking from a God-assured heart.
Brian Medway, May 29, 2016