The Next Faithful Step
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
The account of Jesus cursing the fig tree during his final visit to Jerusalem (Matt. 21:18-21; Mark 11:15-17, 20-25) presents a particular challenge to interpretation, since as “the only miracle of destruction in the canonical Gospels”1 it seems out of step with the profoundly constructive nature of Jesus’ ministry.
Matthew records that the cursing and the immediate withering of the tree occurred on the day after Jesus made his “triumphant entry” into Jerusalem and “cleansed” the temple—thus, on the Monday of our “Holy Week.” Mark’s is a more complex story: on the Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem, looked around, and then left again. On the Monday, returning to Jerusalem from where he had stayed in Bethany, he approached a fig tree to eat from it. Finding nothing but leaves, “for it was not the season for figs,” he cursed it with barrenness. Passing on into Jerusalem, he “cleansed” the temple, and returned in the evening again to Bethany. It was on Tuesday morning, as they were walking again to Jerusalem, that Peter called Jesus’ attention to the fig tree, now “withered from the roots up.” In response, Jesus took the occasion to talk about the power of faith, prayer, and forgiveness.
Since the earliest centuries of the church, the apparent harshness of Jesus has been the mainspring of the interpreters’ comments.2 Mark’s note that “it was not the season for figs” seems to make the act particularly pointless. The explanation is sometimes given that Mark assumed his fig-savvy readers would understand Jesus was after the edible green knops of spring rather than the ripe figs of summer;3 but this does not explain why the tree, lacking even the knops, ought to have been cursed. So interpreters since ancient days have looked to the broader context for insight, and have generally found it in relation to the action in the temple. Thus the fig tree’s cursing seems to make most sense as a symbolic action, to be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ attitude towards the temple, and perhaps interpreting it as well.
This assessment has picked up support more recently with the recognition that one of Mark’s own narrative techniques is the “sandwiching” of stories together for a purpose.4 His telling of the story in two days differs, as we noted above, from Matthew’s telling. Since the fig tree is a characteristic symbol for Israel in the OT, most scholars understand the cursing of the tree in tandem with the “cleansing” of the temple as a declaration of judgment. The question then becomes, upon whom or what is the judgment declared?
The traditional view, that Jesus here condemns all Israel for failing to discern the “season” of God’s new spring, fails with the appreciation that Jesus himself and his disciples were Jewish, and were clearly not included in the curse. E. P Sanders attempted to shift the traditional understanding of the “cleansing” of the temple to Jesus’ “cursing” of the temple in particular and all it stood for, not least because of the association with the fig tree’s cursing. Not all have been convinced of that, since Jesus’ attitude toward the temple elsewhere is benign (for instance, in v. 11 he walks around it like a tourist). His disruption in the temple itself seems to have focused, not on the ancient temple services, but rather on certain recently-instigated activities—buying and selling, and “carrying vessels” in ways that were apparently inappropriate (11:15, 16). Therefore the target may have the current religious leadership specifically, who certainly did take offense (11:18). It may be possible to speak now of a growing consensus that the cursing of the fig tree represented the severest sort of warning to the religious leadership of Israel.5
If the meaning of Jesus’ act has attracted rigorous discussion, the nature of the act is less noticed in recent commentaries, which tend to focus on its historicity or even its possibility. But Jesus here performs an act of particular power, one that sticks in the memory of his disciples. Not only is the tree killed, but it withers right away, and, as Ehprem the Syrian observes, everyone knows that cut fig wood takes an especially long time to dry out.6 When Peter questions Jesus about it, it is the very power of the act that Jesus comments on, not its intended message. Faith not only can wither a tree, but can cast down a mountain, and in fact “whatever things you prayer for, believe you have received them, and they shall be granted you” (11:23-24). Jesus does not only let fly a negative judgment on the religious leaders, but in the same act demonstrates a very much more vital spiritual reality of his own. And his next words go further. They imply that the great purposes of the temple, namely, providing access to God, a place of prayer, forgiveness, and guidance (1 Kings 8:27-53), can be safely bypassed in the context of the lordship of Jesus: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespass” (Mark 11:25).
When the naked power of the act is factored in, the message of warning to the leadership of Israel becomes also the demonstration of a religion very different from theirs. It is a relatively private demonstration, witnessed only by the disciples, but it is sufficient to the purpose of testifying to them that Jesus’ message has already transcended the temple system (as the Last Supper would also testify, and as his death and resurrection would particularly establish). It may be that a symbolic or prophetic act must always have the nature not only of a message but of a demonstration as well. One thinks of the discipline and dedication of Ezekiel’s enacted prophecies testifying to his divine call (Ezek. 4:4-8) or the broken yoke of Jeremiah and the subsequent breaking of life itself (Jer. 28:17). Jesus did not rely solely on miraculous power to commend his message; he also manifested godly insight, godly wisdom, and godly love. In this light the withering of the fig tree must be seen, not as “miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper,”7 but as assurance given by Jesus to those closest to him of the seriousness of his message to Jerusalem, and of God’s own hand with him.