GETTING THE MESSAGE/Matthew 21:18-19
Wednesday, August 6, 2014 1:00 PM
In this passage Jesus approaches a fig tree looking for fruit, but upon closer examination finds nothing but leaves. He responds to the unproductive tree by condemning it; "May you never bear fruit again." Immediately the tree withered. Jesus is using this particular tree as an object lesson. He has in mind something that has a show of life but in fact is unproductive or fruitless. He has in mind religious but barren people. He has in particular mind the people of Israel, but it extends to whoever would profess faith in Christ but is not fruitful.
Jesus often taught about the danger of hypocrisy. He is reminding us here of the self- delusion of hypocrisy. Someone may have the appearance of religion or righteousness but remains under the judgment of God. The hypocrite has two main issues/problems that we must avoid. The first is that he has confidence in his own righteousness. It is interesting that Jesus chooses a fig tree for his illustration of hypocrisy. We remember that when Adam and Eve sinned against God that they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves and hid from God. The problem is that fig leaves cannot cover sin or shame, and leaves cannot hide you from God.
Neither can a sinner's own righteousness. The problem with the hypocrite is he thinks it can. And it is quite natural for all of us to think this way. We are by nature vain. We seek ways that we might exalt ourselves over one another. The religious leaders of Israel especially made efforts to fast, give, and pray so that people would have to take note of their superior righteousness. But their problem (and our problem) is that we have to pass God's judgment and he judges based on reality not appearance.
We must be "justified" in God's court of justice. This means we must be declared not guilty in his sight. And we must be declared righteous in his sight. God is not going to call someone righteous who is not righteous by his standards. So our problem is no matter how much outward foliage we have compared to other trees (or humans) we still are going to fall way short of God's standard. We cannot get rid of our sin, and we cannot live perfectly righteous lives. The conclusion is that we are hopeless if we have to depend upon our own righteousness. Despite this, the hypocrite is confidence in his own righteousness. More than this, he becomes angry if someone (including the Lord) tells him it is insufficient.
The bottom line is that we need a righteousness we cannot provide. We need the righteousness of someone else and the forgiveness someone else provides. We need to be clothed in Christ, not our own fig leaves. The prophet Isaiah said; "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of my salvation." There are no degrees in being justified this way. No one can boast of being justified more than another. Mary Magdalene with 7 devils was as perfectly justified as Anna who stayed in the temple praying continually. They were both justified only for what Christ did, not anything they did. Christ the Savior was the boast of them both. And he is the boast of all who believe in him (rather than their own righteousness). A hypocrite can never rest entirely on the righteousness of Christ, and thus give up the boast of his own righteousness.
The second problem with the hypocrite is that he is unfruitful. It is true that he hypocrite will object to this. "Look at my leaves," he says. "Did I not cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name? Have I not fasted, and prayed, and tithed all my life?" The Lord answers: "Depart from me. All your works were but vanity, a chasing after the wind." The hypocrite really is unfruitful. He may do many good works. But they are done for vanity and his own glory. They are not done from the foundation of truth, humility, or love.
It is true that Christ insists on fruit from his people. "I appointed you to go and bear much fruit," he says to his disciples. But this fruit is built on a crucified Christ. It is not the foliage of a proud sinner who tries to improve his sinful nature for his own namesake. Rather it is fruit produced by a forgiven sinner, who strives to die to his sinful nature, and live to the glory of his exalted Savior. No hypocrite will produce this fruit. It is the fruit of thanksgiving and love; the only fruit worthy of Christ.
The Rev. Chris Shelton is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Union, MS.