If you drive by our house, you know that we have a large landscaped area surrounding a tree filled with azaleas and nandena. The ground is not perfect for azaleas, and none of them do well. The largest of the azaleas used to be sheltered from sun by a pine tree that fell during an ice storm several years ago. Since then, it has never been healthy. About five or six years ago, Kathy and I left on vacation for two weeks in mid-July. The person who was supposed to water them did not while the temperature was near or over 100 degrees. When we returned the largest azalea was a deep orange color. Jim Williams came over, looked at the problem, and offered to take it out. He did not think that it would ever bloom again, if it even survived.
I decided to try to rescue the azalea and went on a program of watering and careful care of the plant. Amazingly, it survived. However, sure enough, it has never bloomed again. Some years, if the winter is very wet and mild, and if I fertilize it at exactly the right time, and if I water the plant all summer long, I get one or two blooms the next spring. Jim and Karen have moved, but everyone I consult gives me the same advice: “Pull the azalea out and plant a new one.” You see, azaleas are meant to flower, and an azalea that never blooms is not an azalea worth having. Someday, I will give up hope and and plant a new azalea.
God has planted his Holy Spirit in us by the power of Christ through faith. He intends us to bear fruit for his garden, the world. When we don’t do that, we are like my azalea—we are not doing the thing God intended us to do when he planted us. On the other hand, when we do bear fruit for his kingdom, we are bearing the fruit for which we were created.
The Story of A Fig Tree.
In this blog, I am looking at a text that comes from passages just before and just after the cleansing of the Temple. In the first reading, Jesus is on his way to the Temple when he stops near a fig tree. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the Gospel According to Mark:
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it (Mark 11:12-14).
Going on to Verse 20 we read:
This story is one of the most perplexing stories in the New Testament. It is one of the so-called, “Difficult Passages” because it seems odd for a number of reasons. Jesus is walking from Bethany to Jerusalem, a short Sabbath Day journey. It was morning, and Jesus was hungry. As Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem, he saw a fig tree. When he got to the fig tree, Jesus saw nothing but leaves—no figs at all. However, this was not unexpected because it was early spring. Normally in Israel one would not expect there to be figs on a fig tree until much later in June. 
Luke tells a similar story, but in his story a landlord has a fig tree that has not born any fruit for three years. He asks his vinedresser to cut down the tree, somewhat like Jim Williams offered to take out my azalea. The landlord’s vinedresser begs for some time to rehabilitate the tree, just as I tried to rehabilitate my azalea. In fact, the reason I did so was that I remembered the story from Luke! (Luke 13:6-9).
Jesus Enacts a Story.
What is going on? How are we to understand what Jesus is doing? To gain a better understanding, let’s begin with a look at the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, prophets and others often use the metaphor of Israel as God’s vineyard to describe God’s people.  In Isaiah, for example, Israel is described as a vineyard that only bears bad fruit (Isaiah 5:2). God poses the question concerning what he is to do with this vineyard. God answers that he will take away its hedge and burn it to the ground, destroying everything (v. 3-6). By this, Isaiah is prophesying the destruction of Israel.
In the episode of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus speaks of the corruption of temple religion, which had strayed from God’s intention for his temple to be a place of prayer (Mark 11:15-19). Surrounding the episode of the cleansing of the temple is this story of the fig tree. There are many ways of looking at this story, but to me the best interpretation is to look at the fig tree as the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day. Not only has temple religion not born the fruit for which it was intended, but God’s people also have not born the fruit God intended.
Many scholars think that this story is what they call an “enacted parable.” In the Old Testament, prophets would sometimes enact a story. For example, when Jeremiah wanted to prophesy the enslavement of Israel by the Babylonians, one of the things he did was to wear an ox’s yoke (Jeremiah 27:2). When he wanted to prophesy the breaking up of the nation of Israel, he breaks a pot (Jeremiah 19:1-15). God asked the prophet Ezekiel to take a clay tablet, draw a picture of the temple on it, and then lay siege to his picture of the city (Ezekiel 4:1-8). There are other very good examples in the prophets.
In an enacted parable, the teacher not only tells the story, he or she acts it out. In this case, Jesus sees a fig tree. Perhaps he knows that this particular fig tree never bears fruit. We don’t know. In any case, he curses the fig tree, then goes and cleanses the temple, and on the next day the fig tree is dead. In fact, the Temple was destroyed for the final time a few years later in 70 A.D. In my view, this story is not primarily about a fig tree; it is about God’s judgment on Israel for not bearing the fruit it was intended to bear.
God’s People as God’s Fruit Trees.
What does all this have to do with people like us in the 21st century? Just like the Jews, we are God’s people. He has planted us, his fig tree, in his vineyard, our world, in my case in that part of the vineyard called Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee. We were not planted where we are planted as a decoration like my azalea. We were planted to bear fruit. It does not matter if we move away, because God still wants us to bear fruit. We have just been planted in another part of God’s vineyard, and it is there that we must bear fruit.
The fruit God wants us to bear is the fruit of the Kingdom of God. God wants us to be a part of his mission to the world to preach the good news, to bring people to faith, to disciple them diligently, and in our own personal lives to bear the fruit that God intends his people to bear. He wants us to be wise, loving, kind, peaceable, generous, etc. He does not intend us to just do this on Sundays, but every day, in every way, in everything we do.
In John, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus says these famous words:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:5-8).
Earlier in this talk, he mentions that while he is the true vine, the Father is the gardener, and the gardener cuts off branches that do not bear fruit. Why? Because he planted the vine to bear fruit, which it is not doing. He also alerts us that even if we are bearing fruit, from time to time he prunes us so that we will bear even more fruit.
This has direct importance to us. First, God in his mercy has saved us and given us his Spirit so that we can bear fruit. If we do not bear fruit, we are not being the disciples God has called us to be. In fact, we are not being disciples at all! Second, although we have been saved by grace and not by works (Ephesians 2:9), God expects us to bear fruit both in our personal lives and in our ministry to those with whom we come into contact (Ephesians 2:10). From time to time when we are not bearing fruit, we are going to get pruned, whether we like it or not.
Bearing the Fruit of Faith.
God saved us to be fruitful both internally and externally. In other words, God expects us to change personally and to be a part of his mission to save others. First, God intends that our faith in Christ enable us to bear an internal fruit in the depths of our personality. In Galatians, he says:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5:19-26).
Our Christian faith should result in letting go of the things in our personalities that are negative and replacing them with the Fruit of the Spirit. This does not happen magically, but spiritually as by grace we cooperate with God to put to death the negative and experience the positive of growing in Christ.
Secondly, God intends us to bear fruit by reaching out to others in the name of Christ and sharing God’s love and God’s wisdom with them by the power of the Spirit. The Gospel of Mark, like all the Gospels, begins with Jesus coming to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God—the Good News that God loves us, died on a cross for us, rose from the dead for us, and desires to bring us and the entire world into his kingdom of wisdom and love (Mark 1:15). The Gospel of Mark, like all the gospels, ends with Jesus sending his disciples into the world to share this good news (Mark 16:15). The fruit Jesus wants us to bear is the fruit of a people who themselves are working to improve God’s lovely and potentially fruitful vineyard as a thing of wisdom, truth, love, and beauty.
Making the World A Better Place.
Every house we have owned, I have tried to improve and leave better than we found it. In particular, I have tried to leave the yard a bit better than I found it. In recent years, I have not worked in the yard as much as I wish, and I have not finished a few projects, especially in our back yard. One thing I hope to do soon is to fix some of the gardening issues in our back yard and do a bit more landscaping where it is needed. I don’t think God cares too much about this little project, but I am sure he appreciates it a little. How much more then, do you suppose God wishes we would leave our families, our neighborhoods, our city, and our church just a bit more fully representative of his Kingdom than we found it? In particular, I think, God wants us to grow in our own holiness and help others to experience the blessings of faith in Christ.
When Kathy and I went on our honeymoon, we had a great time. Kathy loves to go out, dance, and have fun. Surprisingly, about a week into our honeymoon all she wanted to do was sleep. When we got back, she still was very tired. When she went to the doctor, she discovered that we were having a baby. Why? Because love bears fruit. God wants us to bear spiritual fruit for his kingdom. That is why be planted us here.
Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
  James A. Brooks, “Mark” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 181-183. Conservative commentators often try to explain that there were often pods on the fig trees this early in the spring, so perhaps Jesus noted that there were no such pods on this tree. Frankly, we cannot know if the tree deserved cursing. I suspect it must have. I think, however, that the reason the apostles remembered the incident is precisely because they did not undestand what Jesus was doing and it was a bit out of character.
 A vineyard is the most common symbol used for Israel in Scripture. God condemned Israel’s leaders because they “have destroyed my vineyard” (Jer. 12:10). In Psalm 80:8-16, Israel is “a vine out of Egypt” whom God brought out and planted in Palestine. In Jeremiah 2:21, God rebukes Israel in the same language he uses in Isaiah 5, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” See, www.twoagespilgrims.com/pasigucrc/2011/05/11/the-unfruitful-vineyard-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god (Downloaded March 4, 2015).