I’ll admit up front that the title of this sermon is a bit nonsensical…I really know of no place in the Bible…or history…or in fiction for that matter…where figs have been connected with a whale…although, never having read Moby Dick, for all I know Captain Ahab may have had a thing for figs like Captain Queeg in “The Caine Mutiny” had for frozen strawberries. ☺
However, in preparing for “Kenley’s Sermon on Jonah” last week I couldn’t help but feel that Jonah was a type for Israel…that his behavior toward the Ninevites had parallels to Israel’s behavior toward surrounding nations in Jesus’ time. For instance, do you remember this from the narrative of Jesus and the Samaritan woman?:
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) (John 4:7-9)
Just like those Jews didn’t want to have “dealings with Samaritans,” Jonah clearly did not want to have dealings…especially ones that might have a positive outcome…with the Ninevites.
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
So…as you see the strange way that my brain connects things…you have connection #1…Jonah to Israel in Jesus’ day.
Connection #2 is a bit more obvious…Jonah to a whale…since that’s what we normally assume Jonah was consumed by. However, if we are remaining true to the story, all the Bible says is that “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17)…not to mention Jesus also refers to it as a “great fish” (Matthew 12:4).
Now we have the whale…where do we get the figs? Well, this is where I just have to admit I have a strange brain. As I ponder the Israelites in Jesus’ day…and how their behavior was like Jonah’s…I can’t help but think of Jesus’ acted parable about the fig tree…so that’s where we are going to start our compare-and-contrast exercise today.
But before we do that I now have to confess that not only was not necessarily a whale in Jonah…in Jesus’ acted parable there were no figs…thus further proof my title was nonsensical. However, is “Figs, Not-So-Much, and the Great Fish, We-Aren’t-Sure-What-it-Was” a better one? ☺
Leaves but no fruit
Both Matthew and Mark feel Jesus interaction with the fig tree was important enough to include (or, I should say, the Holy Spirit considered it that way). Although neither book is entirely chronological, both have the incident after Jesus’ passion-week entry into Jerusalem…so it seems likely the event occurred after his triumphal entry on the back of a colt…and after at least an initial visit to the temple. In Matthew it is shared after Jesus drives the moneychangers out…in Mark before. Let’s start with Matthew’s description:
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.
In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And 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 marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matthew 21:17-20)
And on to Mark’s narrative:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it (Mark 11:12-14).
Which is followed by the cleansing of the temple and then:
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered” (Mark 11:20-21)
We can do a bit of high school compare in contrast. First, what do the stories have in common?
- Jesus was coming from Bethany
- The disciples were with him
- Jesus was hungry
- He saw fig tree with leaves and thus expected fruit
- The tree had no fruit
- Jesus was unhappy, and cursed the tree
What is different?
The majority of the difference is what Mark adds to the story:
- Jesus saw the fig tree at a distance
- It wasn’t the season for figs
- That the fig tree “withered away to its roots.”
Matthew is also more specific about the time of the day…saying it was morning.
Additionally, there appears to be one conflict. Did anyone pick up on it?
Yes, Matthew says the fig tree withered “at once” and Mark’s narrative implies it happened sometime between when Jesus cursed it and when He and the disciples came by the plant again the next day.
Now…it’s not the purpose of this sermon to explain this apparent discrepancy, but I can come up with a couple potential solutions. First…there is nothing literarily wrong if Matthew decided to condense a two day incident into one…and having an otherwise healthy tree wither (as Mark notes) to the root overnight would still be “at once” if you consider how long that would normally take. Second…Matthew’s narrative doesn’t say that the disciples noticed the shriveled tree “at once”…just that it withered “at once.” Instead it says, “When they saw it”…which, very logically, could be the next day.
But explaining how those two versions fit together isn’t the only problem folks have had with Jesus’ acted parable. R. T. France summarizes some of these difficulties well in The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark:
The last miraculous action performed by Jesus in Mark’s gospel has always been a problem for commentators and preachers. Unlike the other ‘nature miracles’ (miraculous feedings, calming the storm, and walking on the lake) it is a purely destructive act, which achieves no useful purpose. Even worse, Jesus’ curse on the tree appears to be a spontaneous and spiteful reaction to his personal disappointment at finding no figs, and when in addition Mark goes out of his way to tell us that it was in any case not the time of year when figs might be expected, the whole story seems quite discreditable. It reminds one of the vindictive behaviour of the holy child narrated in the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It is hard to imagine why Jesus should have misused his miraculous power in this petty way, and still harder to understand why anyone should record it. It should have been possible to find a more wholesome narrative basis for the lessons on the power of faith which both Matthew and Mark have seen fit to draw from the story.1
Ouch. If we leave it there…it almost sounds like this section of Scripture shouldn’t exist in our Bibles–that it is out of place. However, France realizes its legitimacy:
In view of this embarrassment over the story, it is not surprising that commentators have seized eagerly on the possibility that it not only lends itself to a symbolic interpretation but also was so intended by Jesus, offering an acted parable (comparable to the spoken parable of Lk. 13:6–9) of God’s judgment on ‘unfruitful’ Israel and in particular on its temple. Mark’s structuring of this section suggests such an interpretation, as we have seen, and it is supported by the prophetic use of fig trees and their fruit (especially the ‘early’ or ‘first-ripe’ figs) to symbolise the people of God and their obedience. See most obviously Je. 8:13; 24:1–10; Ho. 9:10, 16–17; Mi. 7:1, and in the NT Lk. 13:6–9. Mi. 7:1–6 provides a particularly illuminating parallel. Similar symbolic use is found frequently in postbiblical Judaism.2
And France is far from being alone in realizing the connection between the fruitless fig tree and Israel. Also speaking of the passage in Mark, MacArthur writes:
Jesus’ direct address to the tree personified it and condemned it for not providing what its appearance promised. This incident was not the acting out of the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6–9), which was a warning against spiritual fruitlessness. Here, Jesus cursed the tree for its misleading appearance that suggested great productivity without providing it. It should have been full of fruit, but was barren. The fig tree was frequently an OT type of the Jewish nation (Hos. 9:10; Nah. 3:12; Zech. 3:10), and in this instance Jesus used the tree by the road as a divine object lesson concerning Israel’s spiritual hypocrisy and fruitlessness (see note on Matt. 21:19; cf. Is. 5:1–7).3
Just like the fig tree, Israel had the appearance of being God’s people–but lacked the fruit that should come with it. Even when they did take the time to proselytize, Jesus’ words about Jewish leaders ring in our ears:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matthew 23:15).
And if you are still scratching your head about why, given Mark notes it wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus was so unhappy, France makes one more point I’d like to share:
A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfil; so, too, is Israel. And just as Micah, speaking for God, described his disappointed search (equally unreasonably at the other end of the growing season) for the ‘first-ripe fig for which I hunger’ (Mi. 7:1), so Jesus on his initial visit to the temple has found all leaves, but no fruit. His summary verdict on the ‘braggart’ fig tree (Plummer) is a verdict on the failure of God’s people and is of a piece with his developing polemic against the ‘barren’ temple.4
Finally…although not near as tasty as a ripe one, there is an early fig that…given the leaves…should at least have been available on the tree. Jesus was not wrong in his expectation of finding fruit…but, as we’ve discovered together…that wasn’t the point of this exercise anyway…
Getting back to Jonah…and dusting off our brain cells from last week…is it fair to compare Jonah to Israel and thus the fig tree too? First, did he have the appearance of being God’s chosen?
Well, not only did he have the appearance…like Israel…he was God’s chosen. Scripture records that “the word of the Lord came to Jonah” (Jonah 1:1)…and just like the Jews in Jesus’ day were to be a light to the world, Jonah (in this specific case) was supposed to bring the truth to the Ninevites.
How about fruit? With all the insight Jonah had about God, do we see fruit in line with that knowledge?
No…he tries to run from God specifically because he new our Lord is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (John 4:2). Just like the Israelites who, for instance, didn’t want to give the Samaritans the time of the day…Jonah would rather die than have the city of Nineveh spared.
And just like with Jonah…God tried to reason with the first century Jews…even sending His Son to show them the truth first hand…only to be rewarded with Jonah-like stubbornness. Jonah ends with a big question mark–did he ever get the point, repent, and show fruit? First century Israel ended with the complete (and permanent through today) destruction of the temple. The God they rejected had not choice but to reject them (although Romans does indicate there may be an end-time return to our Lord by Jews).
Although I’m basically done with this talk…I really don’t want to leave everyone at such a depressing point…so one final thing to ponder.
Is the story of Jonah just about failure?
No…look at the sailors…who by the end of the storm “feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (Jonah 1:16). Also, how about the Ninevites, who “turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3:10)?
Was God “stuck” because His chosen (Jonah) rejected Him (at least temporarily)?
No…He will draw others to Him!
And it was no different with the Jews in Jesus’ time. Beyond the fact not all the Israelites spurned him, even before the church was born we can take comfort in gentile examples like the Centurion who caused Jesus to exclaim, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10) or the Canaanite woman who verbally jostled with Jesus over whether dogs get crumbs from the children’s table…and not only had her daughter healed, but heard Jesus commend her with, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28).
Just like Jonah isn’t just a story about failure…the Gospels aren’t either. They are an account of the ultimate success of the cross…and we can praise God that when Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30) He made it so that all of us sitting (or standing) here are part of the good news too.
Praise be to God!
1France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark : A commentary on the Greek text (439). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.
3MacArthur, J. J. (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.) (Mk 11:14). Nashville: Word Pub.
4France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark : A commentary on the Greek text (441). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.