On Bearing the Fruits of Repentance (Mon. April 26)

The word of the day is “fruit.” Today in Matthew 21:18-43, we read of another astonishing act of the Lord.  We think of the Lord as merciful and longsuffering, and He is.  Yet as He returns from Bethany to the Holy City, He stops to pick figs from a tree on the side of the road.  But the tree was bearing only leaves. In response, Jesus says, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again” (OSB vs. 18).  Immediately the tree withers.

The Gospel of Mark makes this seemingly spiteful action is even more puzzling.  Mark says that figs were not in season at that time (Mark 11:13).  Why then should Jesus expect to find fruit on it? And why destroy it?

The Story of the Fig Tree is a Prophecy

The answer is that the Lord’s action is a parable that explain the events of this Holy Week.  The day after the crowds acclaim Him to be the long-expected Messiah, Jesus told this teaching story against the Jewish nation.  It is two-fold prophecy: first  that the nation will reject Him and kill Him and second that the promise of the Kingdom will be taken away from the Chosen People and given to those would bear its fruit (OSB vs. 38-41 and 43).

The Orthodox Study Bible comments that “the fig tree, a symbol of prosperity and peace, withers because it is fruitless” (OSB fn. on 21:19).  The Gospel writer Matthew reports that the “chief priests and Pharisees” discerned that the parable was against them (OSB Matthew 21:45].  Because of this, they redoubled their efforts to seize Him.

God’s Disappointed Expectations

The Jewish officials were right that the parable condemned them.  But they were only representatives of the whole people who would soon cry for Jesus’ crucifixion.  The fig tree stood for the Chosen People.  The Almighty has expected His Chosen to bear the fruit of righteousness, justice, and obedience.  But throughout their history, they had rebelled against the One who had chosen them for Himself.  Thus, the Almighty had looked for fruit on the tree of the nation in vain.  The people bore only “leaves. ”  Instead of godly fruit they only produced outward signs religiosity without the sincerity of heart.

Moreover,  the people persecuted and killed those whom the Almighty had sent to recover a harvest from His vineyard.  Jesus described their offenses when He wept over the Holy City.  He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to you (OSB Matthew 23:31).  Now they are about to “kill the heir,” the Son of God, who had visited His People for the final time.

A House Left Desolate

Because of their continued rebelliousness, the parable of the fig tree prophesied that the Chosen People’s  birthright to inherit the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them.  Moreover, the almighty would “destroy those wicked men miserably” (OSB vs. 40).  Accordingly, the Lord warned, “Your House is left to you desolate” (OSB Matthew 21:38).  The Orthodox Study Bible comments, “God’s deepest desire is the reconciliation of His people, yet most do not want Him.  The desolate house (vs. 38) refers both to the temple and the nation itself… Both the temple and the nation will be without God’s presence once Christ appears” (OSB fn. 23:37-39).

The withering of the fig tree symbolized that without the Providence of God, the city, nation and temple would soon  be destroyed.  Accordingly, about the Temple, the Lord prophesied “Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (OSB Matthew 24:2).  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus continues, “because you did not know the time of your visitation” (OSB Luke 19:44).

What About the Tree of Our Lives?

For the Jews of Jerusalem, it was too late.  Just as the fig tree withered away, so the nation would soon succumb to the Judgement of God.  But what about us?  The Triodion for this day warns, “ O Brethren, let us fear the punishment of the fig tree, withered because it was unfruitful; and let us bring worthy fruits of repentance unto Christ, who grants us great mercy (Mother-Mary 1994, 514).

This is the time of our visitation.  Now the Lord looks for the fruit of faith and love on the tree of our lives.  The readings for this day, speak of the Lord’s return and the final Judgement (OSB Matthew 24-15-25:46).  It says, “Thou has heard, my soul, how Christ spoke in prophecy to His holy disciples, foretelling the consummation of all things.  Make read, then, since Thou knowest that the end will come, the time of departure is at hand” (Mother-Mary 1994, 521).

The “consummation’ is the time when Christ the Judge will come as swift as lightning with thousands upon thousands of angels.  There will be “fear and trembling” and “all shall stand naked before Him” (Mother-Mary 1994, 531).  Therefore, the Triodian says, “Make haste, then, and be ready (Mother-Mary 1994, 531).

Time to Bear the Fruits of Repentance

Note that the Triodion says that the “Lord grants us great mercy.”  He has given us this time for repentance as 2 Peter says, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (OSB 2 Peter 3:9).   During the forty days of Great Lent, we have faced our sinfulness.  Now, as the Triodian says, it is the time for us to “bear the fruits of repentance.”

St. Seraphim of Sarov refers to Galatians 5:22 when he lists the spiritual fruits of  “love, joy, peace, and the rest”[1] St. Gemanus advises a harvest of repentance that includes lamentations, chastity, the forsaking of pride, lust, and iniquity, and that we should rebuke the devil.  He suggests that we take off the rags of vile, gloomy ruinous carnal love and put on the new, radiant incorruptible vesture of righteousness.[2]

For Reflection

How shall we participate in the events of this Holy Week worthily?  Our reading and study for this day provide an answer.  We should approach the Holy Passion of our Lord with respectful fear, for by His Cross, the Lord confronts sin, death, and the devil on our behalf.  The Lord said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (OSB John 12:31).  If we should cling to anything that belongs to this world of corruption, if we should refuse to repent of any transgressions, if there is some part of our life that remains under the devil’s reign, then we will be judged for these things.  Therefore, by repentance that bears fruit, let us leave our sinfulness behind and follow the Lord as He sets about defeating all that used to enslave us.

Notes

[1] St. Seraphim of Sarov. Little Russian Philokalia.

[2] Collection of St. Demetrius of Rostov.  From the Life and Passion of the Holy Monastic Martyr Eudocia

Works Cited:

Mother-Mary, Archmimandrite Kallistos Ware. 1994. The Lenten Triodion. South Canaan, Pennsylvania  St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press

 

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