And When They Saw It They Marveled

“And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, He [Jesus] was hungry. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came, if haply He might find anything thereon: and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee forever” (Mark 11:12-14).

“And when He saw a fig tree in the way, He came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away” (Matthew 21:19-20).

You write to ask for my interpretation of these mysterious passages. Schuon once told me: “It is easy to be infallible. You just say, ‘I don’t know!'” So that’s my initial response, to admit my ignorance! Of course, if this incident is (as you say) truly “koanic” in character, we shouldn’t expect to find a purely discursive or verbal solution. Ignorance on the plane of reason is inevitable, and indeed “fruitful” in a way mere figs are not.

Having made this confession, I can however offer a brief suggestion. The key, it seems to me, is to remember who Christ is: namely, the Creator of both Heaven and Earth—”all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3)—and thus the Creator not only of trees but of seasons. Both are His servants and are necessarily subject to His will.

I don’t mean to suggest that His will is arbitrary or merely a matter of whim, and that He can do just anything, however odd or disproportionate. On the contrary, Christ’s deeds, rightly understood, will always finally make sense, as did those of Al-Khidr, whose mysterious actions—including even the murder of a young boy—could not but scandalize Moses (see the Koran 18:65-82).

I bring up Moses deliberately, not just because of Al-Khidr, but because it seems to me that the episode with the Fig Tree is meant to tell us something about Christ’s relationship to the Law, a Law which dictates that certain things be done at certain times and places, even as the seasons dictate that figs appear at certain times and not others.

Now Christ at once completes and transcends the Law: “I am come not to destroy but fulfill” (Matthew 5:17), He says, and yet we’re also told in the Scriptures that “the Law was given by Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), the adversative “but” clearly indicating a dichotomy between two distinct planes, one exoteric and the other esoteric.

Obviously the esoteric goes beyond the exoteric while yet subsuming it (see “Two Esoterisms” in Schuon’s Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism). Different seasons notwithstanding, the whole point of a fig tree is for there to be figs; winter thus exists for the sake of summer and not vice versa. In the same way, the whole point of the Law is to lead men to righteousness; its “times and places” are for the sake of a timeless perfection and not vice versa.

In cursing the Tree, Christ was certainly not exhibiting anger toward the Tree as such, as the atheist Bertrand Russell rather foolishly surmised. On the contrary, He was underscoring the Tree’s very reason for being. And He was reminding us that “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees”—except , that is, we go beyond the “jot and tittle” of exoteric expectations and assumptions—”ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

Let me repeat my first and simplest answer: “I don’t know.” But perhaps this suggestion will help point you along your own more “fruitful” lines of reflection.

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