Four years out of seminary I left the clergy roster and resigned my parish in Ohio. Disenchanted with the whole enterprise known as “the church,” and convinced of the need for a more organic, incarnational Christian existence, I embarked on a journey toward “intentional community.” I spent a few cold, wet weeks of early summer on a northern Vermont homestead delighting in wonder and slipping into despair. Then, taking only what I could fit into or strap onto my car, I headed to my parents’ place in southern Missouri…and stayed there for the next six years.
What led me back to my parents was my father’s recent diagnosis of ALS and the onset of his demise from dementia. That slow sojourn into the unknown lingered with anguish yet was filled with some of the deepest sweetness I have ever known.
Shortly after arriving, while adapting to familiar surroundings and uncertain circumstances, I noticed something I never had before: a spindly persimmon tree with lopsided foliage towering above the propane tank.
My parents had bought the place ten years earlier, just after my father’s resignation from his dual-parish in Texas and from the clergy roster as well—thirty years after his ordination. The son and grandson of pastors, my father was mired in disillusionment and futility and simply could abide no longer. His most vital and vibrant years of ministry had been the dozen he spent in the Philippines. Toward the end of his life, he often said that coming back to this country had been his biggest mistake.
I first encountered persimmons while trying to adjust to this land called America after my father’s decision to leave the country where I had spent the first seven years of my life. On a class expedition through the woods neighboring our school, the teacher pointed to the orange orbs hanging from the limbs of a small tree and told us they were edible. I had grown up plucking fruit from trees—mangoes, jackfruit, papaya, mangosteen, and tamarind—fruit that I now longed for. I pulled a persimmon from a limb, bit into the firm flesh, and experienced a sourness that made me swear to never try one again. Years later, as a ruined and disgusted pastor much sooner than my father, seeing those green orbs heavy on the branches above the propane tank made me desire a second chance.
Toward the end of Jesus’ short-lived ministry, just a few days before his crucifixion, he did something seemingly bizarre and erratic.
In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21: 18–19)
He cursed a fig tree because it had only leaves, no fruit… and figs weren’t even in season! When Jesus uttered those words and blasted the fig tree, he was, I am convinced, symbolically cursing the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When the primal pair first became aware of their nakedness, they used fig leaves to cover themselves—probably from the tree by which they still stood? The rebellion which took place at that tree was the reason Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, the reason he himself would all-too-soon be stripped naked and die cursed on a tree.
Puzzling as it may seem, the cursing and withering of the fig tree has to be looked at through Jesus’ parable earlier in his ministry: the unproductive fig tree.
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ (Luke 13: 6–9)
The parable is a plea for mercy, but one with an unsure outcome. Spared despite bearing no fruit for three years running, the tree is given a grace-period for intense cultivation. All will be well and good if the tree fruits the following year, but if not, then it will be cut down. If Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Matthew is crucifixion, then this parable is the demonstration of his renewing labor on behalf of blessing and resurrection.
Ministry, as Jesus knew, is the struggle between blasting the fig tree out of existence and cultivating it so that fruit may finally come. It is a visceral and ongoing vacillation.
Three years into his life in the Philippines, my father sat looking out on the endless sea and wrote vividly damning and beautiful sketches of the people and events that filled his childhood as a pastor’s son in rural Illinois. It was as though he needed the distance of time and place and culture to see and discern the truths of those memories. But his understanding was not confined to the surroundings of his distant past; he looked with equal clarity of vision on the tragedies and truths of the people in his present world, so different yet so commonly human. Whether in the rural Midwest or in the Far East, the universals of human experience were what he learned to define: pride and shame, possession and loss, hypocrisy and reverence, sadness and joy, cruelty and redemption.
I found those sketches, which my father had written three years prior to my birth, while tending to his withering frame… while dealing with the dissipation of his once keen mind and the gracious disappearance of the bitterness that had gripped him for so long.
Late each autumn during those years of my father’s demise, I took great counsel from that old persimmon tree with branches way out of reach. I learned that one has to wait for persimmons to drop when ripe. The fruit, soft and fragile, looking like the rising or setting sun dusted with a gentle white haze, falls to the ground and awaits discovery as a gift from above. The flesh of ripe persimmons, readily reducible to mush, is faintly sweet and beckons wildlife. I was always mindful while gathering the fallen fruit to share the abundance with those nocturnal gleaners. I could preach with ease a sermon to the birds (and people) on the virtues of persimmons; about waiting and being given, about bitter turning to sweet.
My father died a year ago this past December—five months after I returned to parish ministry. In the late spring of that year, a hard freeze came and damaged many a crop. The persimmon tree bore no fruit that fall, and my visits home were devoid of that sensory solace. But that year gave way to another.
Persimmons fell in abundance once again this past autumn. I savored their pleasant sweetness even more due to the year’s absence, thinking of life and death and a calling abandoned and restored. That tree calls me to remember barrenness and anticipate resurrection. I can look at a cursed and withered tree, even a beam with the Son of God hanging on it, and see the tree of life.
Joel Kurz received his BA in English from The College of the Ozarks and his MDiv from Concordia Theological Seminary. His essays and poetry have been published in several journals.