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St. Bartholomew, the Apostle Jesus Saw Under a Fig Tree

August 21, 2020


When Jesus met Bartholomew for the first time, Jesus told him, “I saw you under the fig tree” (Jn 1:48b). It is a peculiar and intriguing comment. Why would this behavior be worthy of notice or deserving of a comment? What is spiritually significant about sitting under a fig tree?

St. Bartholomew

St. Bartholomew, Apostle and Martyr.” St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Wayzata.

A shady place is a good place to pray and study. Fig trees have many leaves and a dense canopy. It is hot in Israel much of the year. Most homes were made of stone, out in the open, not protected from the sun, and without fans or air conditioning. During the heat of the day a person could get relief in the shade. It was an ideal place to read Scripture, contemplate it in prayer, study its meaning, and apply it to daily living. “To sit under a fig tree” is a Jewish figure of speech for meditating on Scripture. It is presumed that Bartholomew spent many hours under the fig tree in prayer with Scripture, was thoroughly familiar with its entirety, both the Law and the prophets, and understood that the Messiah had been promised and was coming. When Jesus told Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus was telling him that he “caught him” reading Scripture as he was in the habit of doing.

Fig leaves are a reminder of sin. When Adam and Eve realized that the serpent had tricked them and that they had sinned, “they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gn 3:7b). Fig leaves represent sin. Bartholomew went under the fig tree to reflect upon his life, bring his sins to mind, admit them to God, express his regret, apologize for them, offer repentance, and pledge to do better. When Jesus told Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus knew that he was confessing his sins to God, that he was sorry for his sins, and that his sins were forgiven (see Ps 32:5).

Fig leaves provide overhead protection. Fig leaves provide shelter from the searing rays of the sun and the pounding rain during a downpour. Similarly, the many leaves in the canopy overhead represent the protection that the Mosaic Law provides to those who stay under it and abide by it. When Jesus said that he had seen Bartholomew under the fig tree, it meant that Jesus was aware that he was well-schooled in the Law, was fully committed to following it, wished to stay under its spiritual protection, and that he was a righteous man.

We need to spend time in the shade. Bartholomew spent time under the fig tree. We do not know what he was doing for sure, but it is likely that it was quiet time spent in prayer and reflection. Bartholomew probably was following the traditional Jewish practice of reading and praying with Scripture under a fig tree. Or, he may have taken an extended amount of time to reflect about his life, particularly the sins that he had committed, been filled with remorse, sought forgiveness, and expressed his intention to live a holier life. Or, he may have been reviewing the Mosaic Law and been making a pledge to God to adhere to the Commandments more faithfully in the future. Like Bartholomew, it is good for us to reserve a block of time to be in the shade of the fig tree, to get away from people and our tasks, break away from the regular routine, sit down alone, be quiet, eliminate distractions, and spend quality time with God, not just speaking but also listening. Fig tree time can also be an excellent opportunity to read the Bible or do other spiritual reading. The options are many. The need is critical. The urgency is high. The time is now. If we sit under the fig tree, Jesus will see us, and when he does, he will be pleased.

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