Is the tree doing its job?

As a Pennsylvania native, I first visited my current home in Fresno, Calif., in the middle of winter. While I knew enough of the West Coast climate to know that I wouldn’t find snow on the roads, what I did not know was that winter is the height of citrus season. 

As my friend drove me around the city, my face was glued to the window, mouth agape as I marveled at the -orange trees heavy with their mid-winter bounty. 

There is something about a fruit tree ripe for the harvest that still captures my attention with the promise of a delicious bite of fresh produce. Somehow, fruit trees resonate with my soul.

The biblical text suggests I’m not alone in my fruit tree fascination. Images of fruit trees abound in the -Bible. In several cases, such imagery describes the importance of humans producing “fruit” that aligns with their purpose. 

In Matthew 12:22-37, for example, some Pharisees express concern that Jesus’ exorcisms are evidence of him being in cahoots with demonic powers (12:24). 

Responding to this accusation, -Jesus says, “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit” (12:33).

The Gospel of Mark also uses the appearance of a fruit tree to make a point. Mark’s account of Jesus cursing a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14), upending normal operations in the Temple (11:15-19), and then confirming the fig tree’s fruitlessness (11:20-21) offers a creative use of a fruit tree to illustrate judgment against unjust practices. 

By inserting the account of the cleansing of the Temple in the middle of the story about the fig tree, Mark subtly highlights a comparison between the fruitless tree and the -Temple: Just as the fig tree fails in its one purpose to produce figs and is thus cursed, so too the Temple’s failure in its one job to perpetuate God’s justice means it will meet a similar fate.

If one suspects Mark’s Jesus of treating the tree or the Temple too harshly, we need only look back to -ancient Israel’s prophets, who also used fruit trees to illustrate human failure. 

The prophet Hosea draws upon such imagery. In Hosea 9:10, God reflects on first encountering Israel “like grapes in the wilderness” or “like the first fruit on the fig tree.” However, this image of abundance is quickly quashed as the Lord announces that “their root is dried up; they shall bear no fruit” (9:16). The fruitless tree becomes a vivid metaphor for a fruitless people.

Likewise, the prophetic text of Jeremiah draws upon a similar image. In Jeremiah 8:4-17, God’s words condemn the ignorance and misdeeds of people who have turned away from the Lord. 

In the context of this speech lamenting human failures, the Lord grieves, “There are no grapes on the vine nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered” (Jeremiah 8:13). 

The failure of a fruit tree to do its one job of producing fruit is likened to that of humans who fail to do what is required of them. 

This is akin to the message that Mark’s Jesus seems to repeat in his cursing of the fig tree and disruption in the Temple. There is just something about a fruitless tree that captures the tragedy of God’s people failing to live up to expectations.

While the lesson to be gleaned from these accounts probably does not suggest that we should start flipping over furniture in our churches like Jesus did in the Temple, it may suggest that our actions (or “fruit”) matter greatly. 

That is, the fruit trees of the Bible are not commended for believing the right thing or holding the correct theological viewpoint. Rather, they are judged on the basis of carrying out the action for which they were made: producing fruit.

What do the fruit trees of Scripture say to us today? They might suggest our responses to traumatic events should look less like thoughts and prayers and more like policy changes and material aid. 

These fruit trees might encourage us not only to recite litanies of supplication for the hungry but to invest in assistance for our neighbors who are food insecure. 

The fruit trees of Scripture stand as silent witnesses to the importance of producing the fruit for which our Creator has made us.  

Melanie Howard

Melanie A. Howard is assistant professor and program director of biblical and theological studies at Fresno Pacific University in California. Read More

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