On a road trip coming back from Anchorage this last week, I had my heart broken by a bag of beef jerky.
OK, I admit that I may be exaggerating a bit, but in my defense it was late, and I was hungry. I purchased what looked like a good sized bag full of the delicious, spicy, salty snack to help me get through my midnight drive back home to Kenai. About halfway through the trip I eagerly opened the bag only to discover, to my horror, that it was mostly empty.
The only part of the bag that was transparent was a small window on the bottom. The beef jerky inside was only filled, with what I’m sure was exacting precision, to the top of that window. Everything beyond was just air. In my haste I didn’t realize I wasn’t buying a pound of beef jerky, I was buying about 5 ounces in a 1 pound bag.
I shouldn’t be surprised as this is not exactly a new tactic. Anyone who has ever opened a bag to discover five potato chips knows that packagers and marketers have been doing this for a long time.
It’s especially unfortunate when Christians do the same thing in their lives.
Jesus shared this concept with a much more powerful illustration than a half empty bag of snack food. He killed a fig tree. It’s true; you can read about it in Scriptures in Mark 11:12-24.
I would recommend reading the whole story on your own, but basically it is two incidents intertwined. Jesus was walking with his disciples when he saw a fig tree full of leaves.
In the life cycle of a fig tree, leaves come at the same time as fruit, so Jesus naturally approached it looking for fruit. When he discovered no fruit, He cursed the tree, and they finished the trip to Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem Jesus had his infamous moment of driving the money changers from the temple. Upon leaving the city they passed the same fig tree and the disciples noticed that it had since died.
The incident of the fig tree and the money changers in the temple were connected in that they were both examples of the perils of external religious appearance at the expense of what is truly important. The fig tree was full of leaves, but upon closer inspection had no fruit. The temple had all of the bustle and significance as a center of religion and commerce, but Jesus tore the place up declaring that it should have been a “house of prayer for all nations … but you have instead made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17)
As Christians, we can sometimes be experts at cultivating leaves. We try to look, dress, and act the part. We clean up our behavior and do the best to make sure that our sin isn’t externally noticeable. We wear the right clothes, sing the right songs, say the right cliché’s, and shake the right hands.
The real “fruit” of our faith, however, is cultivated in private. It’s the time we dedicate to prayer and God’s word when nobody is around to impress. It’s no coincidence that in that culture, the fig tree was commonly considered to be a place of prayer.
If we only focus on the external, cultivating leaves and neglecting fruit, it is inevitable that someone will eventually get close enough to see the leaves were really just empty promises. When we cultivate an inner life of the fruit of prayer and devotion, however, it will eventually produce full, beautiful leaves that will attract all those hungry for hope and truth.
Pastor Grant Parkki is the Christian Education Associate Pastor at Kenai New Life. You can find out more about the church and its ministries at kenainewlife.org.