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April 22, 2019

The Meaning of the Withered Fig Tree of the Gospel (St. Maximus the Confessor)

On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture:
The Responses to Thalassios

Question 20

What is the meaning in the Gospel of the fig tree that to all appearances withered contrary to reason? And what is the inordinate hunger of Christ that sought for figs out of season? And what is the meaning of a curse placed upon something that is devoid of sense?


The Divine Word, who governs everything with wisdom for the sake of human salvation, first trained human nature with a law requiring a more corporeal observance, because humanity's ignorance of, and estrangement from, the archtype of divine realities was preventing it from receiving the truth free of figurative veils. Afterwards, manifestly becoming man by taking on flesh possessing an intellective and rational soul, He redirected the course of human nature - insofar as He is the Word - toward immaterial and cognitive worship in the Spirit. Once the truth was made manifest to human life, the Word did not want a shadow to hold sway over that life, a shadow whose very type and figure is the fig tree. This is why Scripture says that He encountered the fig tree "while returning from Bethany to Jerusalem." In other words, after His figurative, shadowy, and hidden presence in the law, He becomes present anew to human nature through the flesh (for this is how one must understand "returning"), for it was then that "He saw a fig tree on the way of having nothing but leaves." It is evident that the tree is the corporeal observance of the law, existing in shadows and figures, having an unstable and transient tradition, which is why it is found "on the way," being a sign of passing figures and precepts. Seeing that, like a fig tree, it was ostentatiously and extravagantly adorned by the outward leaves of the corporeal observances of the law, but finding no fruit on it - clearly no fruit of righteousness - He cursed it, since it did not provide nourishment for the Word. Or rather He commanded that the figures of the law should no longer hold sway over and conceal the truth. And this was subsequently proven to be the case through actual deeds, when the beauty of the law, which exists merely in external forms, was completely withered, and the pride that the Jews took in it was extinguished. For insofar as the truth of the fruits of righteousness was now visibly displayed, it was neither reasonable nor seasonable, that the appetites of those who travel on the road of life should be beguiled and deceived by mere "leaves," and in the process neglect the edible fruitfulness of the Word. This is why it says: "It was not the season for figs." In other words, the time when the law prevailed over human nature was not the time for the fruits of righteousness, but was rather a prefiguration of those fruits and in some way indicative of the future divine and ineffable grace that is able to save all. Since the ancient people did not arrive at this grace, they were lost through unbelief. For the divine Apostle says that: "Israel, which pursued righteousness based on the law" - referring, of course, to the law in shadows and figures - "did not arrive at the righteousness of the law," that is, the law fulfilled in the Spirit through Christ.

Or, again, because the majority of priests, scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees were sick with vainglory - manifested in their outward display of false piety and customs - and because they only appeared to practice righteousness when in fact they were nourishing their pride, the Word says that their pride is like an unfruitful fig tree, rich only in leaves, which He, who desires the salvation of all human beings and hungers for their divinization, curses and causes to wither away. He does this so that they might prefer to be righteous in reality rather than in appearance, removing the tunic of hypocrisy so that they might be clothed in a tunic of virtue, as the Divine Word wishes them to be. They will then pass the rest of their life in piety, presenting to God the disposition of their souls rather than display their counterfeit piety to men.

If it happens that some of us who are Christians are also like this, feigning piety through outward displays while having no works of righteousness, we have only to accept the Word, who in His love for humanity hungers for our salvation, and He will wither the seed of evil in our souls, that is, the evil of pride, so that we may no longer seek to please men, which is the fruit of corruption.

Here you have, according to the measure of my impoverished abilities, the meaning of this passage, in which my explanation showed the Lord rightly to be hungry, and usefully to have cursed the fig tree and to make it wither at the right time, for it was an impediment to the truth, either as the ancient tradition of the law's corporeal figures, or as the empty religious pride of the Pharisees and ourselves.


The beauty of the law and the pride of the Jews had nothing real or substantial apart from its outward forms, the law which was made void by the advent of the Lord.

From On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, pp. 140-142.