God placed our kind on earth on the third day of creation. We were planted into the soil in order to give ourselves away for others. We give oxygen for all living things. We give shade in the summer heat. We provide a backrest for a weary traveler. We give fruit for other’s nourishment. And many of us will give our very lives to be cut down and used for all kinds of human purposes — some certainly more noble than others.
Most of our kind live very quiet, simple lives. We might stand alone on a prairie for 200 years, just dancing in the wind while birds and critters play in our branches. Others might live out our days decorating a family’s courtyard and providing some shade.
For reasons I may never know, the Creator chose our family to play a special role in the divine-human drama. We are not typically given the spotlight. We prefer to stand off to the side as stage props for the main actors — God’s image bearers, mankind.
Yet every now and then one of us finds ourselves witness to the most remarkable events in history. We find ourselves a central part of the plot. That’s my story.
I was just a seedling taking root in the spring of 20 B.C. It was the same year King Herod the Great began building the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. I grew up on the hillside overlooking the temple mount. In those early days I was nearly trampled down by the heavy foot traffic of daylaborers coming to work on the magnificent building. By my twentieth year I was large enough to provide shade and a backrest for the tired stone masons on their lunch breaks. The Temple would take nearly 50 years to complete, and I was there to witness every phase of the building.
I overheard the magistrates boasting of its size and splendor. “One the greatest wonders of the world!” they declared. Jewish scribes debated Torah in my shade and temple officials sat under my branches discussing its divine significance. For the Jews the temple was not just the holiest place on earth; they believed it was where heaven itself intersected with earth. “Thus, my sons,” a father once told his children as they rest for a moment on a pilgrimage to the temple, “To walk up those temple stairs is to walk up into heaven itself.”
The most exciting time of year for me was the Passover festival each spring. I was planted right along the main road that pilgrims took into Jerusalem. I stood tall and proud near the crest of the mount of Olives, and children anxious to see the Temple for the first time would often climb my branches to get their first glimpse! “Papa, I see it! I see it!” I can’t tell you how many times I heard that happy refrain.
Oh, and then the joyful sounds of pilgrim songs as they came over that hill! Songs of deliverance. Songs of hope. Songs anticipating that long awaited day when God would send the Messiah to once again free His people from the bondange of Roman oppression. They would sing and dance and wave palm branches shouting, “Hosanna!”
And then one year it was different.
There was an indescribable electricity in the air. The throngs of people who passed under my branches told stories of a great prophet from Nazareth. Some even believed he might be the Messiah himself. It was even rumored that this prophet had the guts to say, “Someone greater than the Temple is now here.” Can you believe the nerve of that man?!
Then it happened.
The usual crowd of pilgrim’s swelled to a mob larger than I’d ever seen. The noise was louder than I’d ever heard in my 50 years guarding that hill. It was him. It had to be.
The crowd parted like the Red Sea and in the distance I saw a man seated on a donkey. People were laying their cloaks on the ground as if welcoming a King. They waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” quoting Psalm 118.
Some religious teachers nearby looked at each other in disbelief, and said, “He’s fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” “Who does this man think he is?” Jesus didn’t flinch, didn’t act surprised but gladly accepted their praise and didn’t deny the royal accolades. The procession passed by and I watched them march right down into the city.
My mother stood speechless (for she is a tree) only a stones throw away (the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree!). Then she spoke to me in the way that we trees speak, saying, “Your father provided the wood for the manger that held that man when he was a newborn baby. We always knew that baby was special and destined to become someone great.”
I spent the remainder of the day pondering that scene until the sun began to set. Then a lone figure appeared on the horizon, walking up the path, deep in thought and visibly disturbed. As he came closer I realized it was Jesus. He reached my trunk, collapsed at my feet and began to sob uncontrollably.
I have felt the touch of human tears a couple of times before, but these tears were different. I remember the tears of a widow on her way back from burying her husband who was ruthlessly murdered by Roman legions at play. I remember the tears of a peasant mother whose children were taken away as slaves for her inability to pay the Roman taxes. Those were weighty tears indeed.
And yet they were light compared to the tears that now dripped down my trunk. I was nearly crushed under their weight. They were not the tears of one but of many. His tears seemed to somehow carry the weight of all the tears that were ever shed since the beginning of time and perhaps all the tears that were still to come.
He turned his face toward the Holy City and cried out with the strongest mixture of compassion and frustration a human being can attain.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.” (Luke 13:34)
“You are blinded by your nationalistic fervor and hatred toward the other nations you were called to reach with the light of salvation. You were called to be a holy, set apart people — the light of the world to illuminate the dark places, and yet you have surrounded yourselves with mirrors keeping the light to yourself and leaving others to perish in the darkness.”
He grew more and more desperate, tears pouring like waterfalls, and continued to cry out:
“And my Father’s house, the Holy Temple, was designed to be place of prayer for all nations, but you have turned it into a den of crooks! Instead of a place to meet with God, you have made it a gauntlet of religious trappings and empty rituals. Instead of the place where non-Jews flock to worship the one true God, you’ve made it a revolutionary hideout for devising military plans to conquer the foreigner.”
Throwing his hands up in the air like a distressed parent at their wits end, he lamented with tired resignation:
“O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come when your enemies will destroy this city and temple. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19)
With other words of lament, Jesus wept over Jerusalem until he finally regained enough strength to rise up and walk home for the night.
The following morning he came again down the path with his disciples. The despair of the previous night was replaced with an intensity and resoluteness in his eyes as he fixed his gaze ahead on the holy city and Temple mount. There was a divine hunger for righteousness that gave way to a physical hunger for a morning fig.
And then he did the unthinkable.
In the blink of an eye my fate was forever changed. He approached and reached up to pick a fig and found only leaves. In calculated moment of divine judgment, he looked at me and said,
“May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the life in me shriveled up. The sap in my every branch instantly dried up. My leaves slowly let go of their grip and fell to the ground all around me.
The disciples stood by in amazement. I stood paralyzed with shock. He spoke directly to me. In all my days, never had a mortal spoken to me as if I were a man. What did it mean? At first I was upset. It’s not fair! Doesn’t Jesus know that it isn’t even the season for figs? He can no more expect figs from me at this time, than a mother can expect to give birth to her baby in her first trimester.
What was the meaning of this?
Then Jesus and his disciples walked on into the city and went directly into the Temple. And with that same intensity and righteous anger he began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He turned over the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. Then he began quoting the Scriptures saying, “Is it not written: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of crooks.”
As word got back to me via the traveling pilgrims, I slowly began to connect the dots and understand what Jesus had done. Like the prophets of old, Jesus used me in a dramatically enacted parable. Five centuries earlier the prophet Jeremiah had entered the temple courts and violently smashed a pot on the ground to warn Israel of God’s coming judgment, and likewise Jesus had chosen to use me as an object lesson to symbolize an Israel and a temple that had failed to produce the fruit God desired.
For years I had overheard the Jewish teachers discuss the scriptures that compare God’s chosen people, Israel, to a vineyard or an olive tree planted by God.
In Jesus, God was returning to the vineyard he had planted — Israel — to collect the fruit, and he found it wanting. Jesus cursed my branches for lack of fruit, and he turned over tables in the temple, disrupting activity for a moment, all to send the unmistakable message that the entire system was under his judgment. The very sacrificial system that God put in place to deal with sin, had itself become sinful. What was God to do?
I remembered the night before as Jesus wept on me, feeling the depth of his divine frustration with a wayward people. Today he chose me to bear the curse the entire nation deserved. He poured out judgment on me to represent the judgment the corrupt temple system deserved.
What a day. What a destiny.
Several days passed and I saw no more of Jesus. I stood upon that lonely hill, cursed and shriveled, certain that I was no long any use to anybody. My leafless branches would no longer provide shade for sunbeat pilgrims. My dry, unsteady limbs would no longer hold the weight of excited children climbing to get a peak at the temple. Soon I would be nothing more than a hollow stump on a hill.
But I was wrong. Dead wrong.
The Creator was not done with me. I was destined to meet Jesus one more time. Early in the morning the soldiers came with their saw and cut me down. They split me down the middle, and place one of my planks vertical and the horizontal, and fastened me into a cross. I was brought to Jesus and his bloodied hands hugged me tight and we began our final march to face our shared destiny.
When we reached the top of the hill, we were lifted up high. Again, with great anguish Jesus wept over Jerusalem, over the nation of Israel who was planted like an olive tree and called to produce fruit of righteousness but failed. Again, his tears now mixed with blood ran down my dry, splintered frame. And those tears that carried the pain and sorrows of the entire world, brought back memories of the stories my mother told me of my special family lineage.
My father, it is said, provided the manger for the Christ child that first Christmas night.
A distant cousin twice removed was the miraculous plant God made grow up over the stubborn prophet Jonah to give him a moment’s comfort before God had the worm devour her soon after.
Another distant ancestor provided the wood for the ark of the covenant where God’s presence dwelled all those years in the wilderness.
Still further back my great-great-great-great uncle was used on the door of Noah’s ark — the door that separated those saved from those lost in the Great Flood.
But our most famous ancestor we can trace our line back to was planted by the very hand of God himself in the Garden of Eden. She stood right next to that most treacherous of trees, the tree that bore that most infamous fruit. She watched Eve pick and eat, and shared in the curse that followed — as we all still do.
Now, all these years later, another tree stands at the climax of history. Just as that first tree full of fruit brought about Eden’s curse, so now on Calvary another tree — barren and cursed on behalf of all — carried the One who could reverse the curse for all. And that is just what we did!
Yes, God created trees on the third day to give ourselves away for others. And now, this man would die a painful death for all, and on the third day rise again to give new life to others.
The few disciples who did not flee their master in that dark hour stood beneath the old rugged cross. Seeing the familiar tree upon which their friend now hung, they remembered Jesus’ cursing of the tree, his action in the temple and his tears over Jerusalem. Then they recalled the parable Jesus had spoken:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the worker who tended the vineyard, ‘For three years now, I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and each time I inspect it I find none. Cut it down! Why should it continue to deplete the soil?’ But the worker answered him, ‘Sir, leave it alone this year too, until I dig around it and put fertilizer on it. Then if it bears fruit next year, very well, but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 6)
And now they understood.
But they also remembered and now understood another strange thing Jesus had told them just hours earlier:
“Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity” (John 12:23-25).
And they had hope.