August 19, 2016

Hiding Behind Excuses: the lesson of the cursed fig tree

"The next day as they were leaving Bethany He was hungry. Seeing from a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went over to see if He could find anything on it. When He reached it He found nothing but leaves; it was not the time for figs. And He said to it in reply, "May no one ever eat of your fruit again!" ... Early in the morning as they were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered to its roots."
Mark 11:12-14, 20

Thursday was the third day I went back to this passage in Mark during my quiet time. I read it and then read it again, each time more slowly. I sat with it on Tuesday, on Wednesday, and again yesterday.

It seemed like such an over-reaction from Jesus - from God - and it bothered me. "Lord, I don't understand. 'It was not the time for figs.' You made nature, You set the rules. Why should the fig tree be cursed and die just because it was doing what it was doing - it was what it was. 'It was not the time for figs.' It couldn't help the fact that it wasn't bearing fruit. 

The footnote said that the fig tree really represents Israel, which had stopped bearing fruit, that it is a "parable in action." It still seemed rather unfortunate for the fig tree. 

I sat with it longer and asked, "If I am the fig tree are You going to curse me? What fruit am I not bearing? But what if the only reason I'm not bearing the fruit is because it's not the time for figs! It's just not the season of life for me to be producing! That's not fair!"

And then I saw it. I saw how I was hiding behind the excuse, clinging to it, shoving it in God's face. "IT'S NOT THE TIME FOR FIGS!"

But God sees past the excuses.

Now I am not a theologian and I know nothing of fig trees that grow in the Middle East, but I noticed that when our Lord looked at the tree the only thing He found was leaves. Not remnants of fruit just harvested, not blossoms for fruit to come, just leaves. Lots of beautiful leaves. The tree looked nice, it looked like it should have something for Him, it looked healthy and lush. So maybe the tree thought it was doing well and others would even say, "Oh how lovely!" Maybe well meaning people would even tell it, "It's okay that you're not bearing fruit right now. It's not the time for figs. In this season of your life you can just be what you are - look you're even providing shade!"
And I saw myself in the tree and in all the excuses I use and all the beauty in my life that I hide behind, hoping that they will be distracting enough that no one will notice what I could and should have but what I lack instead.

Of course there are seasons of life. There are times when we have to step back, say "no," and things may even look barren to an outsider. But God should be the one to give us permission instead of us giving excuses to God. God should be the one to tell us, "It is not the time for you to do this. It is not the time for figs." God, who has our best interest at Heart, will lovingly care for us, protect us, and build us up. He will nurture us until it is time for us to go out again, bearing visible fruit. But in the meantime there will be growth. Our roots will deepen, our limbs with stretch, our trunks will strengthen. 

I guess what I'm trying to say with all this flowery language is that I think the fig tree had stopped producing figs and just become a tree. It was no longer being what it was intended to be. It may have been a lovely tree but it was a horrible fig tree and that was its failure. 

I may be a really nice person. My life my look swell and I may seem to have my stuff together. I may even seem successful. But God has intended for me to be a saint. If I am a lovely person but a horrible saint then I, too, am a failure. I may put on a good show - I may even be beautiful, happy, and successful - but in the end I will be withered to my roots for all eternity with only my excuses to still cling to. 

Going forward I know that I will turn this into a prayer - an inside joke of sorts between my Lord and myself. As I evaluate my works, my time, and my projects I will ask Him, "Is this the time for figs?" As I examine my days, my relationships, and my choices I will ask Him, "Is this the time for figs?" I'm sure that my stupid pride and stubbornness will mean I will continue to make excuses, but I am hopeful that I will listen more.

"The glory of God is man fully alive." St. Irenaeus


  1. I've always been intrigued by this passage. I was listening to Catholic Answers Live and Jimmy Akin had some interesting commentary on it. I don't remember exactly what he said, but as he was talking, I remember thinking, "I've never heard it explained that way!"

    1. Oh I am sure Jimmy Akin had some really wonderful insight!

  2. Thanks for this great devotional!! You've given me a lot to think about this morning.

  3. Thanks for a new prayer phrase! Great distinctions here.

  4. "If I am a lovely person but a horrible saint then I, too, am a failure."

    Yes! Very true!

  5. " It was no longer being what it was intended to be."

    It's so easy to get lukewarm-y in living out the Gospel. Thanks for the reminder to keep on keepin' on.