IF we regard the miracles of our Lord as an epitome of the works of his Father, there must be room for what we call destruction.
In the grand process of existence, destruction is one of the phases of creation; for the inferior must ever be giving way for the growth of the superior: the husk must crumble and decay, that the seed may germinate and appear. As the whole creation passes on towards the sonship, death must ever be doing its sacred work about the lower regions, that life may ever arise triumphant, in its ascent towards the will of the Father.
I cannot therefore see good reason why the almost solitary act of destruction recorded in the story should seem unlike the Master. True this kind is unlike the other class in this, that it has only an all but solitary instance: he did not come for the manifestation of such power. But why, when occasion appeared, should it not have its place? Why might not the Lord, consistently with his help and his healing, do that in one instance which his Father is doing every day? I refer now, of course, to the withering of the fig-tree. In the midst of the freshest greenery of summer, you may see the wan branches of the lightning-struck tree. As a poet drawing his pen through syllable or word that mars his clear utterance or musical comment, such is the destruction of the Maker. It is the indrawn sigh of the creating Breath.
Our Lord had already spoken the parable of the fig-tree that bore no fruit. This miracle was but the acted parable. Here he puts into visible form that which before he had embodied in words. All shapes of argument must be employed to arouse the slumbering will of men. Even the obedience that comes of the lowest fear is a first step towards an infinitely higher condition than that of the most perfect nature created incapable of sin.
The right interpretation of the external circumstances, however, is of course necessary to the truth of the miracle. It seems to me to be the following. I do not know to whom I am primarily indebted for it.
The time of the gathering of figs was near, but had not yet arrived: upon any fruitful tree one might hope to find a few ripe figs, and more that were eatable. The Lord was hungry as he went to Jerusalem from Bethany, and saw on the way a tree with all the promise that a perfect foliage could give. He went up to it, "if haply he might find anything thereon." The leaves were all; fruit there was none in any stage; the tree was a pretence; it fulfilled not that for which it was sent. Here was an opportunity in their very path of enforcing, by a visible sign proceeding from himself, one of the most important truths he had striven to teach them. What he had been saying was in him a living truth: he condemned the tree to become in appearance that which it was in fact--a useless thing: when they passed the following morning, it had withered away, was dried up from the roots. He did not urge in words the lesson of the miracle-parable; he left that to work when the fate of fruitless Jerusalem should also have become fact.
For the present the marvel of it possessed them too much for the reading of its lesson; therefore, perhaps, our Lord makes little of the marvel and much of the power of faith; assuring them of answers to their prayers, but adding, according to St Mark, that forgiveness of others is the indispensable condition of their own acceptance --fit lesson surely to hang on that withered tree.
After all, the thing destroyed was only a tree. In respect of humanity there is but one distant, and how distant approach to anything similar! In the pseudo-evangels there are several tales of vengeance--not one in these books. The fact to which I refer is recorded by St John alone. It is, that when the "band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees" came to take him, and "Jesus went forth and said unto them, Whom seek ye?" and in reply to theirs, had said "I am he, they went backward and fell to the ground."
There are one or two facts in connection with the record of this incident, which although not belonging quite immediately to my present design, I would yet note, with the questions they suggest.
The synoptical Gospels record the Judas-kiss: St John does not.
St John alone records the going backward and falling to the ground--prefacing the fact with the words, "And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them."
Had not the presence of Judas, then--perhaps his kiss--something to do with the discomfiture of these men? If so--and it seems to me probable--how comes it that St John alone omits the kiss--St John alone records the recoil? I repeat--if the kiss had to do with the recoil--as would seem from mystical considerations most probable, from artistic most suitable--why are they divided? I think just because those who saw, saw each a part, and record only what they saw or had testimony concerning. Had St John seen the kiss, he who was so capable of understanding the mystical fitness of the connection of such a kiss with such a recoil, could hardly have omitted it, especially seeing he makes such a point of the presence of Judas. Had he been an inventor--here is just such a thing as he would have invented; and just here his record is barer than that of the rest--bare of the one incident which would have best helped out his own idea of the story. The consideration is suggestive.
But why this exercise of at least repellent, which is half-destructive force, reminding us of Milton's words--
Yet half his strength he put not forth, But checked His thunder in mid volley?
It may have had to do with the repentance of Judas which followed. It may have had to do with the future history of the Jewish men who composed that band. But I suspect the more immediate object of our Lord was the safety of his disciples. As soon as the men who had gone backward and fallen to the ground, had risen and again advanced, he repeated the question--"Whom seek ye?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," said the Lord again, but added, now that they had felt his power--"If therefore ye seek me, let these go their way." St John's reference in respect of these words to a former saying of the Lord, strengthens this conclusion. And there was no attempt even to lay hands on them. He had astonished and terrified his captors to gain of them his sole request--that his friends should go unhurt. There was work for them to do in the world; and he knew besides that they were not yet capable of enduring for his sake. At all events it was neither for vengeance nor for self-preservation that this gentlest form of destruction was manifested. I suspect it was but another shape of the virtue that went forth to heal. A few men fell to the ground that his disciples might have time to grow apostles, and redeem the world with the news of him and his Father. For the sake of humanity the fig-tree withered; for the resurrection of the world, his captors fell: small hurt and mighty healing.
Daring to interpret the work of the Father from the work of the Son, I would humbly believe that all destruction is for creation--that, even for this, death alone is absolutely destroyed--that, namely, which stands in the way of the outgoing of the Father's will, then only completing its creation when men are made holy.
God does destroy; but not life. Its outer forms yield that it may grow, and growing pass into higher embodiments, in which it can grow yet more. That alone will be destroyed which has the law of death in itself--namely, sin. Sin is death, and death must be swallowed up of hell. Life, that is God, is the heart of things, and destruction must be destroyed. For this victory endless forms of life must yield;--even the form of the life of the Son of God himself must yield upon the cross, that the life might arise a life-giving spirit; that his own words might be fulfilled--"For if I depart not, the Comforter will not come unto you." All spirit must rise victorious over form; and the form must die lest it harden to stone around the growing life. No form is or can be great enough to contain the truth which is its soul; for all truth is infinite being a thought of God. It is only in virtue of the flowing away of the form, that is death, and the ever gathering of new form behind, that is birth or embodiment, that any true revelation is possible. On what other terms shall the infinite embrace the finite but the terms of an endless change, an enduring growth, a recognition of the divine as for ever above and beyond, a forgetting of that which is behind, a reaching unto that which is before? Therefore destruction itself is holy. It is as if the Eternal said, "I will show myself; but think not to hold me in any form in which I come. The form is not I." The still small voice is ever reminding us that the Lord is neither in the earthquake nor the wind nor the fire; but in the lowly heart that finds him everywhere. The material can cope with the eternal only in virtue of everlasting evanescence.