Cursing the Fig Tree
Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? It seems to be the only time he did something that wasn't meant in a positive way. It doesn't bring life, or restoration; a tree gets cursed. And frankly, the tree seems to be totally without guile in this incident.
This is part of a larger story whereby Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem (after three predictions of his impending death). Jesus and his disciples went out of the city to Bethany to spend the night. The next day as they were leaving Bethany, it says that Jesus was hungry. In the distance, he saw a fig tree with leaves and he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it. Staying on the surface of things, one might be forced to conclude that the pressures had finally gotten to Jesus and that here is an example where he put his own needs first and reacted inappropriately, as is the case when we put our own needs first.
Knowing the Gospel of Mark, however, one realizes there has to be more to it than that. Throughout this gospel Mark has encouraged us, tantalized us to go beyond the surface, using the disciples' decided lack of understanding due, in large part, to them staying on the surface, listening to the literal meaning of the words as a foil for something much deeper. So what are some of those deeper possibilities here? There are many.
First of all, this is another one of those situations where one story is sandwiched within another. Obviously, Mark means for us to see a connection between the fig tree and the cleansing action in the temple, which was on his "to do" list later that morning.
Most scholars choose to immediately rush in and discount any literalism in favor of a symbolic understanding. The fig tree is Israel. The cursing of the fig tree for not bearing fruit foreshadows the cursing of Israel for not bearing fruit. Moving right into the "cleansing of the temple" story that follows, it foreshadows the purging of the religious system for its corrupt priests, its over-regulations, and its outward sense of worship. Ultimately, this will all lead to the replacement of Israel by Christianity as God's newly chosen representatives. Everything seems relatively straightforward until we start applying literary criticism to some of the specific details. For example, how do we understand the comment that it was not the season for figs? Doesn't that mean it wasn't the tree's fault!? Would it then mean that nothing was Israel's fault? It's unlikely the author intended to say that.
The story on the figs is pretty standard. Leaves appeared in the spring. Roughly two months later, tiny green fruit would appear and two months after that it would be ready to eat. Fruit left hanging on the tree would be snatched up by gleaners who would be expected to strip it clean. This is springtime. Jesus might be hungry, but he certainly knew the timetable of growth and harvest. Attempts to suggest that he was deceived by the tree are not satisfactory, yet he went looking for figs.
Despite the tendency to come up with great metaphors about what it all means, it could be very simple. In the context of Old Testament prophecies, this had a completely different scenario. There are a lot of tree and fruit metaphors in the Psalms, in Jeremiah, in Hosea, and Ezekiel. We must recognize the importance of Scripture in Jesus' daily life. He knew these books. He quoted from them; he saw his own ministry as a fulfillment of them through the heralding by John, and the healings prophesied in Isaiah. Jesus even tried to literally fulfill them; think of the passage that he fulfilled by obtaining the colt for his entry into Jerusalem. The Hebrew Scriptures, then, were very important in his attempt to understand what God had in mind for him. It is clear that by this time, Jesus embodied some version of a messianic identity. Many of these Old Testament passages refer to the time of the messianic age, that things would be different then, that a new age, a new order would be inaugurated. One of the "signs" that was predicted was the tree that would always bear fruit. Ezekiel goes even further by prophesying that these things would occur in the Kidron Valley, between the Mount of Olives and the temple area. There would be a stream of water running from the temple all the way down to the Dead Sea. Along this stream would be trees bearing fruit of all kinds, all the time. People would never be without fruit. This had little to do with normal growing seasons, or natural changes. These were to be miraculous signs, indicating the beginning of the new age.
But that morning the sign wasn't there. There was no fruit on the fig tree; it was not the season for fruit. Jesus was obviously disappointed, angry enough to curse the tree. Mark does not tell us why he felt this way, only that he did. Does this mean that his messianic expectations were wrong? No, but things were not turning out the way he had expected.
The next morning when they were on their way back to Jerusalem, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!" This may not have been the "sign" he was looking for, but his curse was effective. It is no accident that immediately following the fig tree story, Jesus talks about having enough faith to move the mountain into the sea. Another messianic sign was when mountains would split in two and move in opposite directions. (Zech. 14:4) Here, though, it is in the context of prayer, as an illustration of what prayer can do. Moving a mountain through prayer seems absurd, too hard even for prayer. Yet, the point is that as one opens up to the spiritual realm, those things, which seemed impossible, become possible. It's saying that despite what you see, despite what has happened, continue to trust in God. One can trust God because God is trustworthy. One wonders if Jesus found comfort in these words. They provide more than a note of encouragement, however, because they also heighten the tension of the story. Jesus will continue to press the messianic images and the religious authorities will get ever more nervous.