St Matthew 21: 18 – 22 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea”, it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.’
Reflection I do feel sorry for the fig tree, it’s done nothing wrong. If you look at the parallel account in Mark’s gospel it also tells us that it wasn’t even the season for fig. A little bit of digging shows that the fruiting season is August but small semi-fruit can grow in spring. If none shows in spring it’s a sign of a poor harvest later.
It seems the passage is less about this one fig tree than Jesus not being able to see fruit around him, fruit of the spirit that would grow and carry the seeds of the Good News. It’s partly a miracle (not healing but harming) partly a parable.
The tree is condemned to wither because it is fruitless, but what of the disciples and us?
This passage is set on the short journey from Bethany to Jerusalem and looking at the lie of the land about half way on your route you would have to climb near Bethphage up to the brow of the Mount of Olives. From here you have a view looking over Jerusalem.
There’s a subtlety to the mountain reference that I don’t think I’d seen before, Jesus isn’t simply saying here that you can uproot any mountain, but this mountain in particular, and put together with the reference to the fig tree you can hear a call to the disciples to go out and be witnesses because no-one here is either equipped or prepared to take the Good News out.
This passage asks us to have faith in how we pray, to trust. It calls us to be engaged in active prayer that guides us, challenges us, comforts us, upsets us… but ultimately prayer that connects us with a God who loves us and shows us how to love, to bear fruit and to begin to move mountains.
Prayer God of fig and mountain Hear our prayers Help us to own the words we pray May we pray with confidence that you will use us to make our prayers active. Amen