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Welcome back, this week we’re going to look at one of the misunderstood miracles that Jesus performed and how the early church fathers saw this miracle, and what we can learn from it. I originally talked about the miracle of the fig tree in April of 2019 at St John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville FL but I’ve had time to rethink it and expand on it a little.
I also want to say that most of my study on these verses come from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. (Affiliate Link) If you love the early church Fathers this is a great commentary to have.
The Parable of the Fig Tree
18 On his way back to the city early next morning, Jesus was hungry. 19 He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. So he said to the tree, “You will never again bear fruit!” At once the fig tree dried up.
20 The disciples saw this and were astounded. “How did the fig tree dry up so quickly?” they asked.
St Augustine said, Isn’t there something absurd about Jesus literally cursing a tree for not bearing fruit out of season? Everything in Scripture is to be understood either in its literal sense, in its figurative sense, or in some combination of these.
St John Chrysostom said, When such things are done, whether to places, plants or animals, we do better not to be overly curious about the divine will. Do not inquire too far into whether it was just that the fig tree withered, or you will lose perspective. This sort of question is trifling.
So what Augustine says is this has to be understood in a way that makes sense and Chrysostom is saying the tree isn’t the point.
Today the Kids would call the fig tree a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a device or object that serves to trigger the plot, in this case, a discussion about faith and the word MacGuffin was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a great word that you can impress your friends with the next time you go to the movies.
Don’t get caught up in what he does to the tree, get caught up in what Jesus says next.
21 Jesus answered, “I assure you that if you believe and do not doubt, you will be able to do what I have done to this fig tree. And not only this, but you will even be able to say to this hill, ‘Get up and throw yourself in the sea,’ and it will. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Jesus uses the fig tree to get the conversation started. The disciples ask how this is possible. And Jesus looks at them and tells them about faith. This isn’t the first time Jesus has said this to the disciples. He told them earlier and we can read it in Matthew 17:20 that is they have the faith the size of a mustard seed they can toss the hill into the ocean.
(Chrysostom) He repeated this Lesson to enable them to cleave to prayer and faith. For you shall not only do this, but you shall also remove mountains; and many more things you shall do, being confident in faith and prayer.
Jesus repeated this lesson because he wanted them and us to get it. He wanted them and wants us to understand that our faith is the key to everything, and through faith we produce fruit.
Our Greatest Example
Mary gives us our greatest example. One ordinary girl’s yes changed the course of human history. We don’t sing “Greater in honor than the cherubim and beyond compare and more glorious than the seraphim.” because she exhibited a little faith. As Fr. Stavros Akrotirianiakis says, in his book, The Road Back to Christ,
“Her “YES” was a yes to the greatest task ever given a human being—the responsibility of bearing God’s own Son.”
The excuse I always give is that I’m not Mary or Paul or one of the Heroes we have throughout Church history. But they were all just ordinary people.
Father Stavros says again, In order for God’s miracles to take place, they have involved ordinary people demonstrating extraordinary faith
The Flip Side to Faith
But, there is a flip side to faith. One early church writer said, Just as it would have been better had there never been a tree at all than for there to have been a tree which produced no fruit, so also would it have been better had there never been a man of God than for there to have been a man of God who did not live in accordance with God.
The flip side is us not living for God but for ourselves or the world.
In John he says I am the vine, you are the branches, if you will remain in me you will produce fruit. That is what we call theosis in the orthodox church, The more we remain in Christ, the more like Christ we become.
So How Do We Develop Faith and Abstain from the Bad?
- Participation in the sacraments of the church. Receiving the Eucharist isn’t the only regular sacrament. Confession should be done on a regular basis. Naming our sins takes power from them. The church fathers knew what they were doing, and we need to use the things given to us to help in our walk.
- Prayer. prayer for me was almost as hard as going to confession. When I came to Orthodoxy, I didn’t really have a prayer life because I thought that if I got to close to God something bad would happen. Over the last few years, I have started to find comfort in prayer through guidance from my priest during confession and other spiritual men in my life.
- Spiritual Reading. The Bible mainly but other spiritual books as well. At the first of the year, I went back to a practice a pastor had me do several years ago. Reading a chapter of Proverbs every day for a month. There are 31 proverbs so they line up great so by the end of the year I will have read proverbs 12 times, and hopefully, it will have to sink in.
- Take the fasting seriously. We fast for a time so that we may understand what it is like to feast. I can’t explain fasting here in-depth, what we need to remember is that it’s not about us. it’s about preparing us to be present so we can celebrate what Christ did in the lives of others, and what He is doing in our lives.
- Memorization. Starting with the bible, as we begin to memorize scripture it becomes part of us. It becomes readily available when the Holy Spirit needs to teach us. After the bible, I suggest memorizing short prayers that are meaningful to you or maybe parts of songs you can use as prayers. I have songs from my Childhood in the methodist church that still comes up when I hear certain things even in the background. Finally, memorize meaningful lines from books or other teachings. I like the Desert Fathers because they always have something meaningful to me but you can also use modern authors.
Pick out one or two of these to start on or talk to your spiritual father or mother in your life and ask them what you should do. Remember, Like rain on the hard earth, it may take a little time to sink in, but every little thing we do makes a difference.
What Does The Fruit Look Like?
You’re going to hear me say this a lot but, One of My favorite parables is the parable of the sower. As the seed of the gospel is sown, it lands on different types of soil. On hard soil, it doesn’t take off and in shallow soil, it takes off but dies quickly, and when it falls in weeds it grows up but gets choked out. But, when the seed hits good soil and takes root it produces fruit. Some 100 fold some 60 and some 30. Not all of the plants produce the same amount of fruit, but they all do something.
What this parable teaches us is that the spirit works differently in all of us so we shouldn’t judge ourselves based on what we see in other people’s lives. God uses all of us differently but He does use all of us if we let Him.
Galatians 5:22-26 But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. There is no law against such things as these. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have put to death their human nature with all its passions and desires. The Spirit has given us life; he must also control our lives. We must not be proud or irritate one another or be jealous of one another.
How are you doing?
(Incomplete work on Matthew) Faith then causes one to abstain from evil and to do good works. The more you abstain from evil and follow the good, the stronger you will make your faith. The less you abstain from evil, however, and the more you neglect good works, the weaker your faith will become.
If you want a checklist of what a life filled with faith in Christ looks like, Galatians 5:22 is your list. I can’t answer for you, and only you and God know. And maybe your pastor or a close friend.
We all have a choice, and I hope we can all choose to remain in Christ.
I heard it said that when you have enough faith that you can move a mountain, don’t be surprised if God tells you to bring a shovel. Because the work is where the lesson is.