And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. | Mark 11.13
In Mark’s gospel, the version of the story we studied Sunday adds a line that has stumped people for centuries: it was not the season for figs. People have tried to dismiss this or even ignore it entirely, but it is right there in the text; we have to do something with it. It has even been used by atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell in his famous treatise,’ Why I am not a Christian,’ to attack the virtue of Jesus:
This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.
Russell misses the point in the story entirely (as we looked at) by judging this act apart from the rest of Scripture. He does not understand the message being sent to the Jews: because of your faithlessness, God is no longer going to use you as the means to make Him known throughout the world, which had been their identity (Exodus 19.5-6). Russell does however bring up a much bigger question about how God can justly condemn a people that He created knowing that they would fall into sin. This question is posed very eloquently by David Bazan, in the song ‘When We Fell’:
When you set the table
And when you chose the scale
Did you write a riddle
That you knew they would fail?
Did you make them tremble
So they would tell the tale?
Did you push us when when we fell?
If God created a people with the ability to sin and the knowledge that they would, shouldn’t He be held somewhat responsible for the outcome? In part, the answer is yes. God doesn’t shy away from sin playing a role in His plan for the world. God is not surprised by or afraid of sin. God knew sin would destroy His creation and He planned for its redemption. In Isaiah 45.7, God says:
I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things. | Isaiah 45.7
God, in His sovereignty, is in control of all things, including sin. This does not mean, however, that He is to blame. Sin is rebellion against God; this is the reason why God can’t sin, because everything He does is automatically in line with God’s nature. The only beings capable of sin are those who God has placed in this world with the capability of worship (and in turn, sin). Did God write a riddle that He knew people would fail? Yes. Did He push us when we fell? No. As a matter of fact, He provided a perfect situation for Adam and Eve to worship rather than rebel. After they did, God makes it clear that His love is greater than their rejection; He makes them a promise of salvation. In order for this salvation to be secured, He had to set aside His glory, live with sinners, and ultimately be killed by His creation.
To answer Bertrand Russell: Is God’s sense of wisdom and virtue different than yours and mine? Absolutely, and I thank Him each day for that fact.