The puzzling Jesus parable—and a minster’s perfect response.

Byzantine icon of the fig tree parable
Byzantine icon of the fig tree parable

It was a few hours after my daughter was born, and I was sitting in chair in a small local hospital, as my wife and newborn child slept peacefully nearby. On the nightstand next to me, I noticed a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and picked it up.

It was the first time I had opened up a Bible in years, and as I flipped through the pages I was surprised to find it was not the medieval-sounding “King James” version I had glanced at in hotel rooms in the past. This bible was written in a modern-day tongue. And while I can’t say that any one passage stood out to me, I was struck by how surprisingly readable it was.

Several weeks later, to appease some old-school family members, we began planning a baptism for our new daughter. I contacted our small town’s only religious institution, a quaint Methodist church, and made plans to meet with the minster and schedule a baptismal date.

This got me thinking it was an appropriate time for a quick refresher on the teachings of Jesus—and I knew the perfect place to turn. I tracked down a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and over the next several days I read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from beginning to end.

While I found a few passages that I underlined for further reference, it struck me that trying to find meaning in the Bible was similar to panning a river for gold.  On occasion I found a shiny nugget, but more often than not, I sifted for meaning and came up empty. Some of the parables were like roads lined by pleasant scenery that led me to dead ends. I even found a few passages that didn’t just puzzle me, they troubled me.

One passage that I couldn’t quite figure out was the “Curse on a Fig Tree” in Mark 11:13 and :14. It reads like this:

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.”

What? Taking this passage at face value, Jesus comes upon a fig tree bearing no fruit—for good reason, it’s out of season—and in what appears to be a spasm of anger, declares that the tree will never grow fruit again. The next day, Peter remarks that the “fig tree has withered”; it’s apparently dead. Which baffled me, for if Jesus had the power to bring the fig tree death, why didn’t he simply give it a jolt of life so it could bear the fruit he was looking for?

As much as I tried, I couldn’t figure out the lesson to be gleaned from this passage. So I waited until my meeting with the spiritual leader who was to baptize our daughter, the now retired Reverend Donald Marks, and I asked him to explain the fig tree parable, whose message seemed contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

He did not give me the definitive answer I thought I would hear. Instead, he paused in thought for a moment, then looked me in they eye and said something that surprised me:

“You know Tom, that passage has often troubled me, as well.”

He went on to stress the importance of finding the Bible passages that had meaning to me personally, for that was where I would find the greatest inspiration and guidance. And for a question that seemed to have no good answer, his non-answer felt right.

Many years have passed since that incident, and I must admit to finding greater spiritual guidance in the intervening time from other sources, including here and here. But I still think back to Reverend Marks’ words, as it reminds me that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth and we can never be so arrogant as to think we know all the answers.

I believe that while we may find a religious or spiritual text that can point us in the right direction and lead us down the right path, we must ultimately take the final few steps on our own. It is here that, left to our own devices, we come closest to truly knowing the power and infinite love of the enigma we call God.

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