When God creates all things good for human beings, a specific tree is mentioned: the Tree of Life (Gen 2. 9). It is put in the middle of the Garden of Eden: this garden planted by God (Gen 2. 8).
At the pivot point in the history of humanity is the Tree of the Cross, the life-giving tree.
History comes to an end as the Tree of Life is again mentioned. At the very end of time, it flourishes, perhaps as a group of trees, on both sides of the River of the Water of Life which flows from the Throne of God (Rev 22. 1 – 3). This is in the Holy City of the New Creation.
All through the Bible there is mention of trees and they are often used in familiar stories and events, in poetry and prophesy. They play a part in the story of redemption. In this set of reflections various aspects of trees (some admittedly fairly tenuous) will be examined. Hopefully this will lead to further thought or investigation on the part of the reader.
In general a chronological or historical approach will be used but some freedom and flexibility may also be applied if deemed appropriate or expedient.
This theme has been chosen to take us through the Trinity season because the liturgical colour for this season is green, evoking thoughts of new life, flourishing and hope.
In the days to come … they shall all … sit under their own fig trees’ [Mic 4. 1, 4]
The fig tree appears first as the only named tree in the creation stories. Adam and Eve ‘sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves’ [Gen 3. 7]. The fig tree is a symbol of life, peace, prosperity and security. The land into which the Lord promised to bring the people after escaping from Egypt is described as ‘a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey’ [Deut 8. 8]. Fig trees and vines are often mentioned together.
When people have plenty to eat and live in safety a time of peace is indicated: ‘all of them under their vines and fig trees’ [1 Kings 4. 25; 2 Kings 18. 31; Isa 36. 16; Mic 4. 4; Zec 3. 10]. In a time of trouble and when there is moral decline Jeremiah says ‘there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree’ [Jer 8. 13] and this, Jeremiah warns, is a portent of coming trouble.
In a vision the Lord shows Jeremiah how those who behave well in exile will be seen as good figs, good to eat, while those who remain in the land, the poorest and weakest of the people, and those who have fled to Egypt, are like bad figs which cannot be eaten. The Lord promises that he will protect those who are like good figs. They will be brought back to the land and will once again be prosperous: ‘they will be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart’ [Jer 24. 7]. The time of peace and prosperity is also the time when the Messiah will appear [Micah 4; Zec 3. 10].
As Jesus gathers his followers, Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him about Jesus. Sceptical, Nathaniel comes to see Jesus, who tells Nathaniel that he saw him ‘under the fig tree’ [John 1. 48].
One of Jesus’ parables concerns a land owner who has a fig tree which is not producing fruit. He has waited three years but there is still no fruit. He tells his gardener to cut it down but the gardener pleads that it should be given one more year [Luke 13. 6 – 9]. This may seem in contrast to the event on the way to Jerusalem near the end of his ministry when Jesus curses a barren fig tree [Mark 11. 12 – 14]. A day later Jesus passes the tree again and his disciples point out that it has withered [Mark 11. 20].
In speaking of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus encourages his followers: ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson’ [Mat 24. 32]. The coming of the Kingdom is like the sprouting of the fig tree: it is obvious when the leaves start to appear that summer is coming [Luke 21.29].
We bless you, master of the heavens,
for the wonderful order which enfolds this world;
grant that your whole creation
may find fulfilment in the Son of Man,
Jesus Christ our Saviour.