Do you know the Scripture where Jesus passes by a fig tree, somewhere near Bethany, if my memory is correct? [Matthew 21:18-22. We do fact check our blog so as not to lead the Internet-gullible astray.] There are a whole range of trees mentioned in the Bible and while many of the references are figurative, some are literal trees, like the oak or terebinth trees of Moreh (where Abram built an altar) and then his living place for a long time became the oak trees belonging to an ally, Mamre.
Nothing roots a story in history, so much as a tree. I guess it is because trees outlive the humans who live near them. If I am a Canadian who knows something about sycamore trees, it’s not only because I’ve been reading Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, but because, as every Sunday School kid can tell you, Zaccheus was in that kind of tree and he was destined to meet Jesus.
This infamous fig tree in Matthew 21:18-22, however, was not mentioned because of what it bore, but because it did not bear any figs. So Jesus cursed it; the disciples heard him doing this, saw the result and reported it in Scripture; and almost 2000 years later, one Saturday night, I’m Googling “fig trees” so I can make sense of the story to my grade 2-3 Sunday school class. You might say like I did, “Do we have to incorporate in our Sunday school curriculum stories like these that are placed among the difficult-sayings-of-Jesus?”. But it was right there in the middle of the lesson plan with a Sunday school moral like, “Be fruitful, or else…” attached to it. As a responsible grade 2-3 Sunday school teacher I felt I had to give the kids something more than this, so I delved into fig tree research.
I learned many things about fig trees and when they should bear fruit and all, but the thing that sticks with me that has me writing this blog today was about a particular variety of fig tree that has male and female trees or flowers or something (don’t make me do the research again) and there is this one particular type of wasp that hangs around the male tree long enough to get pollen on the feet and then flies into the female flower and dies there. The wasp gets incorporated into the fruit, the fig, and it is only by this wasp that the tree can produce figs at all. Now don’t worry, adults, I was discrete in how I passed on this VERY interesting bit of fig info along. The author who put this info on the internet made it clear that it was only one particular type of rare fig variety that had these male / female trees and associated wasps. This wasn’t something I used to explain Jesus cursing the tree as it is highly unlikely that the type of fig tree between Bethany and Jerusalem operated like that. This was treated as bonus info for a grade 2 / 3 Sunday School teacher who has a keen interest in nature but, who, unfortunately already had enough science credits in high school so he never took biology [sad, but true].
Right after the fig tree lesson we served up the name brand Christie Fig Newtons which I had splurged on since my kids deserve only the best. There was a higher than normal amount of half-finished cookies that day, which I put down at the time to “kids-these-days” but, now that I think of it, might also have been accounted for by a certain wasp-like crunchiness to that snack.
Now that I’ve raised this difficult-saying of Jesus in a blog, some of you might want to know why Jesus, indeed, did this. Was the fig tree symbolic of Israel? Maybe, but I wasn’t using that with my grade 2 / 3 kids. Don’t want no part in raising more miss-guided anti-Semitics. Here’s what I take from this story: Jesus, knowing that this would be reported in Scripture, taught in church (and even in some Sunday school curriculums), and studied by teachers, wanted to create a special “wink-of-the-eye” to me and my kin in the 21st century who would delve deeper and learn something of the intricacies of creation as it pertains to figs. I don’t write this tongue-in-cheek, as my reaction at the moment that I read about the wasps was nothing more or less than throwing up my hands to creator-God and Lord of all trees in WORSHIP. He knows my name. He knows how I hang out on my terrace garden at watering time happy that my flowers have created an urban environment for bugs and bees. He knows each tear that falls and, believe me, my tears are all about God’s goodness.