I have two fig trees in my back yard, so I’ve been learning all I can about them. Last year, the trees produced enough fruit to share with bugs, butterflies, and birds and still have way more than I could eat,
so I did what my grandmother did – made preserves.
Here is part of one peck I picked. No picture of preserves available yet.
Early in the summer, I could see the figs forming, but they were green. I started looking around the middle of June for ripe figs, maybe even earlier. I couldn’t remember when the season started. Day after day, the figs were still green.
And each time, I couldn’t help remembering the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree.
It would never occur to me – or anyone I could imagine – to curse a tree for not bearing fruit out of season. Yet the Gospels preserve a story of Jesus doing just that (Cf. Matthew 21:18-22).
The season is about over now. The leaves are starting to fall. That’s what fig trees do. They go through the same seasons each year. Jesus knows this.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28, ESV).
The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:28).
To everything there is a season
He knows the cycles grain and trees go through. He knows about seed time and harvest. You can’t pick fresh figs any time of year. It happens in its own time and in its own season. So how can he get mad at a fig tree when it’s not the season for figs (Mark 11:13)? It’s idiotic to get mad at a tree for any reason, and especially for following the same seasons it does every year. If I got mad at my trees because it’s September and the leaves are starting to fall, you’d think I was insane. And you’d be right.
Maybe a little disappointment is understandable. Maybe he just had a hankering for figs at the moment, saw the leaves on the tree, and thought he’d check just in case a few ripened a little early. No figs. Oh well. He should keep moving before anyone sees he doesn’t know the season of figs in this territory like every other Jew who has ever been to Jerusalem for the three major festivals, right?
No, he curses the fig tree so that it withers and dies, dried up at the root (Mark 11:14, 20). It looks not only stupid but mean-spirited in narcissistic fashion. I don’t care what season it is. You’re a fig tree, and I want figs now.
This is another example of why you can’t read everything in the Bible literally. It is a story that is obviously meant to be read symbolically.
It’s a very common theme in the Old Testament. A gardener plants a tree (or vine) in a garden, cares for it, removes weeds, protects it from wild animals, basically does everything you can to keep the tree healthy so that it will bear fruit. When it’s time for the harvest, there is either no fruit or the fruit is rotten. This is a metaphor the Bible uses repeatedly to say the religious and national institutions have become corrupt, and God is about to pass judgment on them .
The Markan Sandwich
Mark connects this story with another in one of his “sandwiches.” This is when he starts one story, interrupts it with another narrative, and then finishes the first story. The story that interrupts this one is The Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19), when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and calls out the corruption of the priests. Matthew presents these stories as separate events (21:12-13, 18-22), but Mark deliberately links them together to show the meaning of both these actions is one and the same.
Jesus sees a tree with no fruit and causes it to wither and die from the inside out, indicating God’s judgment on the Temple as an institution. Even though this is not the explanation Jesus gives (11:21-26), no Jew in Jerusalem could have missed the symbolism. Here are a few more examples.
The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10).
Beware of the false prophets…Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:15a, 18-19).
In these two passages, both Jesus and John the Baptist draw upon on Old Testament symbol of good figs representing the good people and bad figs representing the bad people (Jeremiah 24:1-8; Hosea 9:10).
Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree
Figs were often named with other crops, especially grapes, as a symbol of security and abundance, of the entire promised land being blessed and no one lacking anything. When the fig tree and the grapevine bore good fruit, all the people lived in shalom.
And He will judge between many peoples and render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken (Micah 4:3-4).
So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon (1 Kings 4:25).
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)
Shaken and Rotten figs
So when fig tree and the vine bore no fruit, or the figs fell because the tree was shaken, troubled times were ahead.
…thus says the LORD of hosts, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword, famine and pestilence, and I will make them like split-open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness” (Jeremiah 29:17).
The vine dries up and the fig tree fails; The pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men (Joel 1:12).
“I will surely snatch them away,” declares the LORD; “There will be no grapes on the vine and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither; And what I have given them will pass away” (Jeremiah 8:13)
They will devour your harvest and your food; They will devour your sons and your daughters; They will devour your flocks and your herds; They will devour your vines and your fig trees; They will demolish with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust (Jeremiah 5:17).
All your fortifications are fig trees ripe with ripe fruit – When [the trees are] shaken, the [figs] fall into the eater’s mouth (Nahum 3:12).
The author of Revelation draws upon this as well.
And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind (Revelation 6:13, KJV).
The Temple is a house built on sand
So this is not about vindictiveness toward a tree. Just as he did when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, Jesus is taking on the role of a prophet pronouncing God’s judgment on the religious institutions. And troubled times were coming. They are within a generation of a rebellion against Rome that would end with the complete destruction of the Temple. The rebels were not yet born, but the social and political forces were already at work, the same forces exposed in the trial of Jesus. And this fact was uncovered recently: The Emperor Vespasian used the gold, silver, and bronze from the Temple to pay for the construction of the Colosseum.
What was happening in the Temple, in the priesthood, and in the religious life of Judea that made Jesus so angry? Usually when the prophets pronounce God’s judgment in the most dire terms, they are condemning some kind of systemic injustice. Corruption has become so entrenched in the system that the only remedy left is to destroy the institution completely and hope that in the ashes the institutions can be recreated. Hopefully this time, if we start again from scratch, these institutions that are supposed to uphold justice and righteousness for everyone will get it right.
As I write this, I feel afraid. When some people read in the Bible about God’s harshest judgments, they feel justified in dehumanizing certain people. They think God hates all the same people they hate. I know because I used to be one of them. Still a recovering Fundamentalist. I don’t want to stir up those kind of misguided feelings, but in order to get at the meaning of this passage, we need to understand this kind of prophetic tradition Jesus was part of. I have a few ideas that I will discuss in a later post.