In the Gospel that is read on Palm Sunday night, Jesus curses a fig tree. He didn’t curse the fig tree because it was dead. It was, in fact, very much alive. Those who know fig trees know that they have very large, very green leaves. They are majestic, if not imposing. And here was a tree that was these things, except that it had no fruit. Without fruit, it had no purpose. So Jesus cursed the fig tree, and it withered at once.
A two-fold message is to be taken from this. The first and most obvious is directed at the Jewish temple leadership. They had a beautiful temple, impeccable furnishings, and grandeur and they carried themselves as imposing figures. Yet, they bore no spiritual fruit from within. Their lives were about the outward trappings, rather than the inward continual turning towards God, which is what repentance is. Therefore, He cursed the fig tree, and in turn condemned the fruitlessness of these “followers” of God, who were, in fact, not following at all.
The second message is directed towards us. We also are followers of God. We also have beautiful temples, many of them adorned with breath-taking iconography. We hear majestic choirs, listen to inspiring sermons, and make grandiose plans to “make a difference” in the world. However, is that what we are really doing? As churches? As individual believers? Are we the grand, beautiful, and imposing tree that bears no fruit?
The Holy Week journey is not there just for us to check off boxes and go through rituals. Time and time again, this journey is meant to challenge us, to strike us all the way to our core. And what can be more penetrating than this question—Am I a fruitless fig tree? Which outwardly appears beautiful but produces no fruit—no fruit of love, no fruit of repentance.
We know that there are several ingredients that help a tree bear fruit—sunlight, water, fertilizer, and regular exposure to these things. These are the same ingredients that help our souls to bear fruit. First, there is the sunlight, spending time with the Son of God. This is supposed to happen daily when we pray, when we simply pause to be with the Lord. Water represents God’s grace, and for us, this is found principally in the sacraments, like Holy Communion, Holy Unction, and confession. Fertilizer is something that releases slowly on a plant and provides nutrients over a period of time. The fertilizer for Christians, I believe, is the Scriptures, and also acts of charity. When we read the Scriptures, we may not have an immediate understanding of them. Just like when we do an act of kindness, it may not move us. Spend enough time reading Scripture, diving deeply into it, unraveling its layers of depth and meaning, and it changes you. It’s like the student who spends a lot of time studying—they get smarter, and better, and understand more deeply what they are studying. No one spends a lot of time studying and has less knowledge. Similarly, when we are charitable towards one another, even small acts of kindness translate into us being more loving, more caring, more aware of others, and also more aware of God. The fourth ingredient when it comes to growing a tree is consistency. Occasional sunlight, water, and fertilizer will not allow a tree to grow. Overwatering and too much fertilizer can damage a tree. I don’t think that too much prayer or worship can damage us. However, if we are only working on our salvation occasionally, even if we get a giant infusion of it at Holy Week but are away the rest of the year, we are not going to bear fruit either. We need time with the Son, the water of grace, and the fertilizer of Scripture and charity, but we need them regularly and consistently.
I was speaking recently to my Spiritual Father, who said to me that a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ is supposed to change us. It is supposed to excite us to want to follow even more closely. It made me wonder if the reason why our churches struggle, is because the relationship isn’t as genuine as we say that it is. It made me wonder personally if the reason I struggle so much with many things, is because MY own relationship with Jesus Christ isn’t as strong as it could or should be. Am I the beautiful tree that doesn’t bear fruit? Are we beautiful trees that don’t bear fruit? Are we beautiful churches that don’t bear fruit? Or don’t bear enough fruit?
Indeed, the journey of Holy Week has a happy ending, from the liturgical point of view. The hymns at points are harsh, and in the end, they are glorious. In life, we need to ask ourselves the harsh questions, and work through the spiritual struggles, so that we can indeed find spiritual glory. The end of the Bridegroom Service on Palm Sunday evening calls on us to remember what happened to the fruitless fig tree, and in so doing, bear fruits of repentance, deliberate actions that will turn our hearts towards Christ. It is a harsh message but helps us stay on the road to eternal glory.
The serpent finding the Egyptian woman as a second Eve, hastened through words of flattery to cause the downfall of Joseph; but he leaving his garment, fled from sin, and being naked, felt unashamed, even as the first-created before the disobedience. By his intercessions, O Christ, have mercy on us. (Aposticha, Bridegroom Service, Palm Sunday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
We need to be concerned not only about the outward appearance of our “trees” but whether they bear fruit. And the fruit is found under the leaves that everyone sees. It is in our hearts. The fruit is repentance, a deliberate disposition, and intentional actions that turn our hearts more deeply to Christ.