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What Kind of Tree are We?

First Reading: Sirach 44:1, 9-13
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children’s children. Their descendants stand by the covenants; their children also, for their sake. Their posterity will continue for ever, and their glory will not be blotted out.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 149:1-6, 9
Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the faithful! Let Israel be glad in his Maker, let the sons of Zion rejoice in their King! Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with timbrel and lyre! For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches. Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, 9to execute on them the judgment written! This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the LORD!

Gospel: Mark 11:11-26
And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked round at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. 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. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple. And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, `My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city. As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

ESV

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Whenever I hear this Gospel, I want to ask Jesus, “Whoa, what is with you and the fig tree?!” The Jesus I want the world to know is not a rage-y Jesus who flips tables and curses a poor fruitless tree out of hunger. But deeper study reveals that there’s much, much more to this Gospel than meets the eye.

Now, the message of the “temple tantrum” is actually pretty clear: God’s house is sacred. It is not a place for socialization and swindling; it is a place for quiet reverence and prayer, a place to separate ourselves from the material distractions of life in order to center our souls. So even though it might seem over the top at first, we can empathize with Christ’s reaction to the complete disrespect of His Father.

But the fig tree? What did it ever do to Jesus?

First off, Jesus and His disciples knew (as any local should) that even if it wasn’t the “season for figs,” a fig tree with leaves would still be producing little edible knobs of fruit called taqsh that peasants often ate. The taqsh would ripen and fell off before the actual figs forming. But if a fig tree already in leaf didn’t have any taqsh, then there wouldn’t be any figs in the coming season—it would be fruitless. Jesus understood all of this when He cursed the tree for its failure to bear fruit, both in the present and the future.

What’s more is that the fig tree represented Israel.

From a distance, the tree was showy: attractive, covered with bright green leaves, a tree that—by all appearances—one would assume would be extremely fruitful.

Same with the nation of Israel at the time. The Jewish people had every reason to bear fruit: they’d been riding high on the covenants of their forefathers, they were living proof of the God who had brought Israel to the Promised Land and blessed them with generation upon generation of righteousness.

But many of them had started to forget their reverence and love for the God behind it all. They turned His temple into and party scene and place to get rich quick. They were obsessed with following certain laws perfectly and scrutinizing (and punishing) those who didn’t, while completely forgetting the Father’s love behind the law. Just like the fig tree, the nation of Israel had become all show and no fruit.

Sin had wormed its way in so that the outer appearance could remain a shiny, attractive shell that disguised the inside: the withered, barren, lifeless soul of a nation that had become all but hopeless. Israel would not, could not produce fruit – in the present or the future – at least not without a Savior.

Mother Angelica also talks about this gospel and Jesus’s call for us to bear fruit in and out of season. When life is going well, it’s easy to embrace God’s love and share it with others. But when we’re “out of season,” when the suffering and darkness surround us and the hits keep coming, one right after another…the last thing I want to think about is bearing fruit. I often make my suffering an excuse. But sometimes, as Christ reminds us–beaten and bloody and weak and crying out from the cross–it’s the most painful “out of season” moments that can produce the greatest fruit.

Which begs the question: what kind of tree are we? Do we, in our brokeness, tend to close God out? Or do we let Him in to cultivate seeds of love in our souls? In the good times, are we mostly show? Or are we allowing His fruit to really grow?

Today, let’s try to examine our soul from God’s eyes. What obstacles can we try to remove (through prayer and the sacraments) or what suffering can we embrace to bear greater fruit that will last?

Megan Hjelmstad is a wife, mom, writer and sometimes soldier whose real passion is equal parts faith and chocolate. You can find out more about her here.

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