Figs, Israel, and Us
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Mark 11:12-25 ESV
This time of year is one of my favorites. For all of history, springtime brings us the promise of new growth. We’re leaving the colder winter months and heading for longer, warmer days ahead. This season is what Jesus and the disciples would have been experiencing in Jerusalem as the events of Holy Week unfolded.
There’s not much recorded about what Jesus was up to in the first few days of the week after the Triumphal Entry. In fact, there’s only really one story from the Monday-Wednesday period. You can read the story in Mark 11:12-25, and there’s a parallel account of this story in Matthew 21:12-22 as well.
This story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is bizarre on the surface. It doesn’t seem to fit His character that He would melt down and curse vegetation that didn’t give Him what He wanted. It doesn’t seem to fit His character, because it isn’t in His character. This is one of those stories that requires a broader historical and Biblical context to fully understand.
If you have any experience with fig trees, or plants in general, it may have struck you that it was weird for Jesus to expect fruit on a tree so early in the springtime. Most trees and plants that produce fruit don’t do so until later in the summertime. Fig trees are the same! However, they do an interesting thing in the springtime that explains why Jesus expected to see fruit on this tree. While the large, better figs do indeed come later in the year, often in the early spring, there are smaller figs that grow on the previous year’s sprouts. These smaller figs would usually grow and ripen around the same time the trees regrow their leaves for the year. We know from verse 13 that the fig tree leaves were in full bloom, so Jesus expected there to be fruit He could eat blending in with the leaves.
Now, I get just as ‘hangry’ as the next person, but this understanding of the fruit cycle of a fig tree still doesn’t give us much clarity as to why Jesus responded the way He did. Jesus’ response is more connected to the second part of the story in Scripture than we may initially realize. You see, throughout the Old Testament Prophets, the nation of Israel was often compared to a fig tree (see Jeremiah 24, for example). So while Jesus was experiencing real physical hunger in the moment, His lesson was much more about Spiritual fruit than figs.
Verses 15 -16 show Jesus clearing out the Temple in Jerusalem for the second time. The Temple was full of people using this place of worship as a marketplace, and Jesus was having none of it. The fact that this cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree happen in rapid succession shows us Jesus’ judgment of Israel. From a distance, everything looked healthy inside the Temple; you might say it looked like a fig tree in full bloom, and it should have had fruit. But upon closer inspection, Jesus judged their worship to be fruitless, just like the fig tree.
Our passage of Scripture ends with the withered and dead fig tree. The faith of the Jewish people was also withered and dead, evident in the lack of fruitfulness in their lives. Let this serve as an encouragement and a warning to us as we celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord this Easter season! May we be a Church so bursting with fruit that the love of Jesus is irresistible to those around us, and may that fruit be an offering pleasing to God.