Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 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. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Jesus Cleanses the Temple
15 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. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 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.” 18 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. 19 And when evening came they[a] went out of the city.
The Lesson from the Withered Fig Tree
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 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. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received[b] it, and it will be yours. 25 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.”[c]
My last year of college, I was V.P. of Student Ministries, and I had the honor of speaking in Chapel for the whole university. I spoke on this passage, and the message was well received. I don’t remember everything I said years ago, but my speaking style doesn’t use points or notes anyway. After revisiting it many years later, here are some of my thoughts:
Much of our interaction with The Bible comes in bits and pieces, which makes sense because any sermon, devotional, podcast, whatever, has to focus on one verse, passage, concept, or idea. That’s totally OK, but most laypeople who don’t read The Bible for themselves get accustomed to approaching The Bible that way, rather than as a larger work, which causes us all to miss some pretty important stuff. For example, the story of Jesus calming the storm is often used to teach that God is with us through all the metaphorical storms of our lives, and that Jesus can calm the waves if we simply trust Him. You may have heard that one before. However true that may be, that is not really what The Biblical author intended to communicate; most people miss the theological significance of the first miracle in which Jesus literally commands creation, and what that really meant to all who witnessed it.
The story above can be easily overlooked, unless we really study the larger surrounding context. What is important about Jesus going off on a fig tree? A lot more than we may think at first glance.
If we put this within context, we see that on the day Jesus curses the fig tree, He is re-entering Jerusalem, the holy city that was home to His people, the Jews, as promised by God when He brought them out of Egypt and countless times as they wandered through the desert. Jerusalem remains to this day the most significant geographical location for Jews, so imagine what it meant to a marginalized people group who had been kicked around from place to place as they longed for that promised land flowing with milk and honey.
Just a few days prior to this re-entry into the city, Jesus had made His Triumphal Entry, riding on a donkey, with the Jews honoring him by laying palm branches- symbols of royalty- before him and shouting, “Hosanna, Hosanna” (God save us).
Right after cursing the fig tree, Jesus gets pissed and clears out the temple, indignant about how His Father’s house, meant to be maintained as the Holy of Holies, had been turned into a marketplace. The merchants within may not have been literal robbers, but they had certainly robbed God’s people from utilizing the temple as the House of Prayer God had intended for it to be. When we think of Jesus, we might picture the long haired, robe wearing, peaceful hippy holding a lamb, that we see on the walls of our Sunday schools, but I can guarantee you that’s not what He looked like as He cleared out the temple. If there’s one thing that can and should make a generally calm, loving, tender person righteously angry, it is when an institution created to represent God robs the people it serves from knowing and experiencing the fullness of God’s character. Sounds familiar.
With that context, let’s go back to the fig tree. It’s not about the fig tree, it’s about Jerusalem, God’s chosen city full of God’s chosen people. The thing about fig trees is that they only bear leaves at the same time that they bear fruit. Therefore, when Jesus saw the fig tree bearing leaves, He was right to expect that it would also be bearing fruit. When He curses the fig tree, it’s less about the lack of fruit and more about the deceptive appearance. This is used as a metaphor paralleled with Jesus’ recent experiences in Jerusalem.
The warm welcome He received indicated that the people recognized who He was, but after a couple days of getting to know what was really going on, and seeing the opposition He faced from the religious leaders- those who were supposed to bear more fruit than anyone else- He was significantly underwhelmed. In the same way that the fig tree had the appearance that it was bearing fruit, Jerusalem had the appearance that it should be bearing the fruit God would expect. What a righteous disappointment to discover that it was not. When Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit, He is in turn cursing Jerusalem for the same issue. May no one ever eat that rotten, defiled fruit again, no matter how hungry they are, or no matter what appearance may be surrounding it.
The next day, when the disciples are entering the city again by the same route, they notice that the fig tree had withered down to its roots. That was quick, but hey, it was God. Jesus’ words are powerful to all that who truly hear them, and even to those who don’t. Jesus’ encouragement to pray and to believe that what we seek from God will materialize echoes the sentiments He had spoken the previous day about the temple, and Jerusalem, remaining as a house of prayer to God. A lot of Prosperity Gospel theology has been built around these words, without understanding that they mean far more than prosperity in any and every sense. Jesus statements end with an admonishment to forgive. We find it hard to forgive people in our lives for all sorts of things, big and small, but imagine what it would be like to be God and forgive over and over and over again a people who had promised to obey your commands in order to be delivered into the promised land, only to defile the Holy of Holies within it by turning it into a market place. When Jesus was hungry and wanted some fruit, all He could find was a tree that looked like it should be bearing fruit. What a metaphor.
When Adam and Eve committed the original sin in the Garden of Eden, they used fig leaves to cover their nakedness as they hid from God. The Biblical author, in this case Mark, would have been keenly aware of the similarities to be noticed between Adam and Eve’s attempt to distort their appearance before God in a garden created especially for them, where they had previously been unhindered by sin to walk and talk freely with God, and an entire city of God’s chosen people falsifying their appearance as they pursued religion rather than relationship with God.
Jesus’ later tells a parable in Luke 13 that teaches that trees that don’t bear fruit are to be cut down in order to make way for a tree that fulfills its intended purpose. The type of tree Jesus talks about is a fig tree. As modern readers, it is easy to miss the subtleties present in scripture, but for the audience to which The Bible was originally written, it would have been impossible. They wouldn’t have needed a blog to make connections between the Garden of Eden, Jerusalem, and one of Israel’s most prominent staple foods.
What does all this mean? Something different to everyone, I guess. I like to apply The Bible to other people’s lives as much as anyone else does, but what is it worth if I don’t apply it to my own life? Some speakers make lists and tell their audience how to apply points A, B and C, or whatever memorable acronym they can get their points to spell out, but that’s never been my style. I don’t think it was Jesus’ style either. Take the fig tree, for example.