(Plaster fig leaf commissioned for Queen Victoria to be used for covering statues with genitalia, courtesy of Wikipedia through the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. When the Queen or other female dignitaries visited museums, this leaf was hung with hooks on the genitalia of statues that the Queen would have found offensive.)
( Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, November 29, 2011)
Readings for November 29, 2011:
Psalms 5, 6 (morning)
Psalms 10, 100 (evening)
2 Peter 1:12-21
My Texan friends have a saying that describes people who are showy but without substance--"All hat, no cattle." We are shown two examples of "All hat, no cattle" in our readings today. Matthew's Gospel includes the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree that has plenty of leaves but no figs. Our reading in Amos describes a whole cornucopia of show but no substance--roaring lions with no prey, snares with no birds, blowing trumpets with no fearful citizens. (That last one reminds me of all the times the local tornado siren goes off in a clear blue sky--so much so that, when we really did have a tornado in 2009, we all asked ourselves, "Is this for real?")
The Gospel reading is of particular interest, given the imagery of the fig leaf. The people who would have heard this story in Matthew's day were accustomed to fig trees being used as metaphors of Israel, but they would also have recalled that fig leaves would have been used for covering nakedness in Genesis. The expectation is that there's something worth being covered by the leaves--in this case the fruit of the fig tree--but there's nothing there.
It brings up an interesting possibility. Traditionally, when commentaries discuss this story, the tree is described as being barren. But in that flip-flop way of the Hebrew tradition, is this a story less about the barrenness of the fig tree, and more about it covering absolutely nothing with its showy leaves?
Figs are from the botanical family Ficus, and the leaves can be up to ten inches long and seven inches across. They can display hints of purple and brown, as well as green, when the leaves mature. They are also easy to propagate via vegetative methods (methods other than planting seeds.) When one wants to grow starts from a Ficus, one merely has to bend over a green branch, scratch the bark at the end of the branch to expose the inner green bark, and keep the branch tied down. In a couple of weeks, roots will form. Cut the proximal end of the branch off the trunk and--ta-da!--a new sapling is ready to plant. Fig trees are "fecund" in this manner even when they are not bearing fruit.
In both the Matthew and Mark versions of this story, I've always been a little irritated at Jesus for cursing a tree that was unfortunate enough to not bear fruit. (There's probably a special irritation there for those of us who never had children.) Honestly, a Jesus who would curse something for being barren kind of creeps me out. We all have some form of barrenness in ourselves.
However, when we think about this as an "All hat, no cattle" story, it begins to make more sense. From the time of Genesis on, God has been shown as never being too thrilled with humankind's attempt to cover our various forms of nakedness, as if God didn't know that already. It's precisely when we are in the throes of our vulnerablities--when we are displaying our various forms of psychological nakedness, economic nakedness, and spiritual nakedness that God can most work with us and build a loving relationship with us.
So what if we're barren in some way? Sometimes, I think we're not so much called to bear fruit as we are called to proliferate vegetatively. The trick is, though, that to proliferate vegetatively, we have to allow our branches to be bent over, and, in time, be cut from our stem. It requires sacrificial giving.
All the covering up we do in our lives simply wastes time and obfuscates the root problems in ourselves. We waste time providing ourselves with cover for our fragile egos when we should be using that time more wisely in the act of listening for divine guidance and sharing branches of ourselves to grow roots and be removed to thrive elsewhere. Truly, that's a curse.