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§ 245. The Fig-tree Cursed. (Matt., xxi., 18; Mark, xi., 12.)—Parable of the Fig-tree. (Luke, xiii., 6-9.)

A remarkable occurrence in this part of the history must now be examined somewhat closely. Christ, returning with his disciples in the morning from Bethany to Jerusalem, became hungry, and saw at a distance a fig-tree in full leaf. At that season of the year such a tree might be expected, in full foliage, to bear fruit;658658   See article “Feige,” in Winer’s Realwörterbuch. The remark in Mark, xi., 13, “The time of figs was not yet,” presents a difficulty; the whole significance of the narrative lies in the fact that the tree might be expected to bear fruit, but was destitute of it. and he walked towards it to pluck off the figs. Finding none, he said, “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter forever.” On the second morning,659659   I follow here Mark’s statement, which seems to me to be the most original in this particular. the disciples, coming the same way, were astonished to find the fig-tree withered.

In what light is this fact to be regarded? Shall we see in it the immediate result of Christ’s words; in fact, a miracle, as Matthew’s statement appears to imply? All his other miracles were acts of love, acts of giving and creation; this would be a punitive and destroying miracle, falling, too, upon a natural object, to which no guilt could cling. It would certainly be at variance with all other peculiar operations of Christ, who came, in every respect, “not to destroy, but to fulfil.” Shall we conceive that the coincidence with Christ’s words was merely accidental—a view which suits Mark’s statement better than Matthew’s? If so, we shall find it impossible to extract from Christ’s words, twist them as we may, a sense worthy of him.

The proper medium is to be found in the symbolical meaning of the act. If the miracles generally have a symbolical import (and we have shown that in some it is particularly prominent), we have in this case one that is entirely symbolical. The fig-tree, rich in foliage, but destitute of fruit, represents the Jewish people, so abundant in outward 358shows of piety, but destitute of its reality. Their vital sap was squandered upon leaves. And as the fruitless tree, failing to realize the aim of its being, was destroyed; so the Theocratic nation, for the same reason, was to be overtaken, after long forbearance, by the judgments of God, and shut out from his kingdom.

The prophets were accustomed to convey both instructions and warnings by symbolical acts; and the purport of this act, as both warning and prediction, was precisely suited to the time. But to understand Christ’s act aright, we must not conceive that he at once caused a sound tree to wither. This would not, as we have said, be in harmony with the general aim of his miracles; nor would it correspond to the idea which he designed to set vividly before the disciples. A sound tree, suddenly destroyed, would certainly be no fitting type Of the Jewish people. We must rather believe that the same cause which made the tree barren had already prepared the way for its destruction, and that Christ only hastened a crisis which had to come in the course of nature. In this view it would correspond precisely to the great event in the world’s history which it was designed to prefigure: the moral character of the Jewish nation had long been fitting it for destruction; and the Divine government of the world only brought on the crisis.

It is true, no explanation on the part of Christ is added in the account of the event above related, although we may readily believe that the disciples were not so capable of apprehending his meaning, or so inclined to do it, as to stand in need of no explanation. But we find such an explanation in the parable of the barren fig-tree (Luke, xiii., 6-9), which evidently corresponds to the fact that we just unfolded. As the fact is wanting in Luke, and the parable in Matthew and Mark, we have additional reason to infer such a correspondence. We cannot conclude, with some, that the narrative of the fact was merely framed from an embodiment of the parable; nor that the fact itself, so definitely related, was purely ideal; but we find in the correspondence of the two an intimation that idea and history go here together; and that, according to the prevailing tendencies of the persons who transmitted the accounts, the one or the other was thrown into the back ground.

It may be a question whether the words of Christ (Matt., xxi., 21; Mark, xi., 23) on the power of faith to “remove mountains” really belong in this connexion. Against it is the fact that the miracle proper was really subordinate, and that the faith of the disciples was to show its power in modes very different from that illustrated by the fact. But if the words are to be taken in this connexion, we must suppose that, after the 359attention of the disciples had been drawn to the subordinate feature (the withering of the tree), Christ made use of their astonishment for a purpose very important in this last period of his stay with them, viz., to incite them to act of themselves by the power of God; not to be so amazed at what He wrought with that power, but to remember that in communion with him they would be able to do the same, and even greater things. The sense of his words then would be: “You need not wonder at a result like this; the result was the least of it; you shall do still greater things by the power of God, if you only possess the great essential, Faith.”

If we adopted this view, we should be disposed to consider Luke, xvii., 6, as the original form of Christ’s language with regard to the fig-tree; and to suppose that in Matthew and Mark different expressions, conveying similar thoughts, had been blended together. Yet it cannot be asserted that the view itself is altogether well supported. Perhaps it may have been the case that the original form of Christ’s words in explanation of the miracle was lost; its symbolical import, which is really its chief import, was made subordinate to the miracle itself; and another expression of Christ, better adapted to this conception of the fact, was brought into connexion with it.

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