And There Were No Figs
By Thom Mollohan
Bartholomew walked excitedly along with the other disciples as they followed Jesus out of the village of Bethany on their way into Jerusalem. As they walked, there came unbidden to Bartholomew's memory the somber forebodings that Jesus had uttered several days before. "Hmm... what was it that He had said? Something about being arrested, flogged, and even being killed" (see Mark 10:32-34).
"Well," he mused, "whatever Jesus was talking about, He must have been mistaken." And as he walked, he smiled to himself, nearly bursting with excitement as his mind was flooded again with the images of the jubilant crowds from yesterday and hearing once again their cries of "Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Mark 11:9).
"Finally," he murmured quietly, "everything that is wrong is going to be set right again. Our people are finally ready for our king. Our world is finally ready for its Lord."
And even as he thought those thoughts, Jesus' strides came to a standstill. He half turned and glanced back at Bartholomew, a sad smile ever so lightly touching His mouth. His eyes shifted from the disciple towards a fig tree standing by itself in the distance, its branches in full foliage, the sheen of which announced that it was laden with figs.
"I'm hungry," Jesus said simply. He left the road and made His way towards the tree. His disciples exchanged the sort of look that they did when they weren't quite sure what new corner of the Kingdom Jesus was preparing to show them. So they simply re-shouldered their packs and hurried after Him.
When they approached the tree, however, they could see that instead of reaching up for the juicy fruits that the leaves suggested, Jesus was simply looking up at its branches. When all the disciples were gathered about Him, He reached up, and pulled a branch down so that all could see its lack of fruit. Again, Bartholomew saw a haunting look of sorrow in the Lord's deep eyes as they turned to look at him.
The Master released the branch, allowing it to spring back into place, its leaves rustling audibly in the heavy air that was quickly becoming hot as the morning progressed. Jesus sighed heavily and then spoke to the tree in a voice that His disciples could clearly hear, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." (Mark 11:14)
At first, Bartholomew was confused. Jesus wasn't One for being petulant. After all, He Himself had corrected John and James when they had suggested bringing fire and destruction down on a village that had given them a chilly reception (see Luke 9:51-56). The lines on Bartholomew's forehead deepened as he sought to understand. "So what is He do...," he started to say to one of the other disciples. But then he realized that, as was often the case with Jesus, there was another point to what was happening.
That same sad smile flickered briefly upon Jesus' lips as He looked at Bartholomew. Then He turned and headed again towards the city. Once they had passed within the ancient walls of the city, Jesus led them straight into the temple, halting in the main entrance to watch the scene before him. The disciples stood beside Him quietly, sensing something stirring within Him. Something that they had felt before but had rarely seen manifested.
As Jesus stood and beheld the people gathered inside the temple's walls, instead of worship of the Living God, all that could be discerned was the worship of money. Here, where the love for God and the celebration of His goodness should have been wafting through the airs like a sweet perfume, there was only the stale odor of the ordinary pursuits of the world.
Without warning, Jesus suddenly launched Himself forward and began to run from booth to booth, knocking over the tables of the merchants and money exchangers and releasing the animals being sold for sacrifices. The resulting confusion was astounding. The voices of some were raised in outrage, while others shouted out in fear and alarm. The clatter of hooves, the slap of many feet retreating, the fluttering of wings as doves were set free, and the clinking of piles of coins hitting the ground and rolling across the floor, all added to the confusion.
And then, when the Master stopped and stood still, wiping the sweat from His forehead, He spoke fiercely to those who dared still to approach Him. "Is it not written, 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:17)
Bartholomew looked over to where members of the ruling Council stood, observing Jesus' cleansing of the temple. While there was neither awe nor love in their expressions, Bartholomew could easily see what they were thinking, for their eyes dripped with jealousy and self-righteousness: "This Jesus is a threat," their eyes reported venomously. He could see the murder in their hearts as they balefully watched Him. Bartholomew swallowed hard and turned away from them, back to the Lord Who was now teaching those around Him about the mysterious and amazing love of God.
The next morning, when they again approached the city, Peter stopped and pointed over at the fig tree that they'd visited the day before. "Master," he cried. "Look! The fig tree You cursed has withered!" (from Mark 11:21)
Jesus looked at Peter and smiled. "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 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 him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:22-25)
In that instant, Jesus had seized a "teachable moment" in Peter's life and instructed him about praying in faith, according to the will of God. He even gently reminded Peter of the need for keeping free from the chains of bitterness and hate, so that one's intimate fellowship with the Father could remain unhindered and untainted.
But for Bartholomew, it was also a teachable moment. There had been no fruit on the tree the day before when the Lord came calling. There had been no fruit, though the leaves of the tree suggested otherwise; indeed, they had even advertised it.
What, he wondered, had the Lord found as He had come calling upon His people? The leaves of religion were certainly on display, but was there any real fruit? Was there any of the fruit of passionate devotion of God to fulfill the desires of the holy and righteous One that religion professed to honor?
The eyes of Jesus fastened upon those of Bartholomew and gazed sadly at him. Bartholomew's heart suddenly filled with a deep ache of regret as he was struck by the horror of what empty worship is to God. His eyes shifted towards the ground and he found himself weeping.
But then the words of Jesus seemed to whisper again in his mind: "I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
He looked up at the face of Jesus and spoke, "Lord, I know what I would ask… I ask that there be real fruit in my life and in Your people's lives. Let there be the fruit of true worship and loving service. And may others know, by that fruit, that You are Lord indeed. That is what I ask. This is what I believe You will do in my life."
Jesus smiled but now had no trace of sorrow in His face. "This is exactly what the Father desires to do for you, Bartholomew." Then the hand of Jesus clasped the man's shoulder, and he knew that his prayer was being answered.
(Scripture taken from the New International Version of the Bible)
Thom Mollohan is a pastor and a religion columnist wanting to see Jesus glorified. He and his wife, Diane, live with their four children in southern Ohio. If you would like to write to Thom, you can do so through the Letters page of this magazine.