“On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening. (…) As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Being reminded, Peter said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.”” (Mark 11:12-14, 20–21, NASB95)
Why This Post?
A member of Sylvania Church recently asked me what I thought was going on with the “cursing of the fig tree.” The text was presented to them by a non-Christian, and sparked a good gospel conversation. My friend wanted to be able to follow-up the conversation with (hopefully) an informed understanding of this text and how it relates to Jesus and the gospel. Below is my mildly edited response to the question of meaning and purpose of “the cursed fig tree.”
Understanding Mark 11:7-21
To understand what is going on in this passage, we have to look at the larger context and understand a bit about the kind of tree Jesus cursed. So, first things first: the bigger passage.
Jesus comes into the city as a “peaceful king” (Mark 11:7-10). He then proceeds to the Temple area, the hub of corporate religious life and communal worship and “looks around” (Mark 11:11). The next morning (on his way back to the Temple), he curses a green, yet not quite in season tree, for having no fruit on it (Mark 11:12-14). Jesus goes into the Temple area, drives out the animals and money changers with a whip (John 2:13-16), turns over the money tables, and declares that His house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations – but they have made it a “robbers’ den” (Mark 11:15-17). It then says that the religious leaders sought a way to destroy Jesus, because of fear and influence (Mark 11:18-19). We see that the next day, the fig tree has rotted from the roots up and Peter is amazed by this (11:20-21).
It is important to note that fig trees of this sort would have produced a sort of “pre-fruit” by this time of year. They would have developed edible green buds that could have given something for a passerby to eat. This “pre-fruit” was also an indicator that the later, more mature figs would actually grow. Given that this tree was green and full, it should have had such “pre-fruit” on it, but it did not. The absence of this fruit meant that the tree was not going to bear any fruit that year – and perhaps no fruit ever.
The story of the “cursed fig tree” bookends the story of what happened in the Temple. Temple worship and leadership had become big business: it was a place to greedily hoard wealth and exercise political and social power. If you traveled long distances to worship there, were poor, or were “an alien,” then worship would have been a drudgery rather than a blessing because of the exorbitant exchange rate. Such a practice is the precise opposite of all that commanded the nation of Israel and its practice of worship to be (Genesis 12:2-3).
So, Jesus condemns the fruitless fig tree–the one that has already shown the certain sign that no good fruit would come from it. In the same sense, He condemns the thievery of the Temple exchange and the mockery of true religion it reflected. Rather than bearing the fruit of repentance, the religious leaders showed themselves to be just like the fig tree–destined to bear no fruit. How can we know this? Their response to Jesus was to seek a way to destroy Him. They were wrong; they were leading people astray; they were using their power to take advantage of those who were weaker and less fortunate; they were using worship and the religious community as a tool for power and wealth. When confronted, they desired to silence their critic rather than vocalize their sin and their need for forgiveness.
This is why true faith in Jesus, a real belief in the gospel, begins with the small, budding fruit of repentance. Humble acknowledgement of our sin and our need of forgiveness starts us on the path of true freedom and true transformation. Arrogance, pride, self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, and self-justification might look good (like the green leaves of the fig tree), but these things do not bring with them the signs of any true fruit being born in us. And, as Jesus says elsewhere, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:17-20).