In response to the “Stump the Priest” invite, Paul Creighton asks “Why did Jesus curse the fig tree?” This is a great question and refers to an event depicted in St. Matthew 21:18-19; St. Mark 11:12-24; and may relate to a parable that Our Lord tells in St. Luke 13:6-9. For our discussion, we will use the account in St. Mark’s Gospel.
Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And His disciples heard it. …
Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away.” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.
There are a great many ways this passage can be misinterpreted. Some people complain that Jesus just threw a temper tantrum and smote the tree because he was hungry and the tree had no fruit even though “it was not the season for figs.” This is not the case. Jesus saw that the tree had leaves; he could tell this from afar. With the particular kind of fig tree, fruit precedes leaves, so, seeing leaves, it was natural to expect fruit even though it was not the season for figs.
Jesus was clearly teaching a lesson, but it was not to the fig tree. He was giving His disciples a lesson. The actual lesson may be a bit hard to pin-point until you notice the way that St. Mark structures the encounter. While the whole event takes up 12 verses, verses 15-19 seemingly have nothing to do with the fig tree. When we look at the passage, we see a few verses about the fig tree, a seemingly out of place passage where Jesus cleanses the Temple, and then a conclusion of the fig tree episode. This is the key to understanding this passage.
In English literature, we most commonly use rhyme, meter, metaphor and similes as literary devices. In Greek literature around the first century, one of the most commonly used literary devices was called “chiasm,” or the structuring of a passage to put emphasis on the middle. An excellent example of this technique is to be in I John 3:9 where the Apostle writes, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” This structure may not be clear until the passage is displayed like so:
A—Whoever has been born of God
B—does not sin
C—for His seed remains in him;
B’—and he cannot sin,
A’—because he has been born of God.
When viewing the passage in this manner, it becomes much easier to see the chiasm that St. John is using.
Saint Mark uses this technique at least nine different times in his Gospel. He makes such common use of the technique that the chiasm is sometime referred to as the “Markan Sandwich.” Something else to keep in mind is that, when dealing with a Markan Sandwich, it is always “the meat” that is the heart of the matter.
Moving back to the fig tree, we have an example of a Markan Sandwich. In this passage we see the events structured like so:
A—Jesus curses the fig tree.
B—The Cleansing of the Temple
A’—The fig tree is barren.
If the meat is what matters, then the Cleansing of the Temple is vital to the understanding of the cursing of the fig tree.
The fig tree becomes a lesson about the pending doom of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the coming judgment of the Jews. St. John the Baptist declared,
“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (St. Matthew 3:8-10)
Later, our Lord echoed those words when He said,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (St. Matthew 7:15-20)
And finally, while preaching in the Temple, Jesus warned the Scribes and Pharisees, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” (St. Matthew (21:43)
The lesson of the fig tree is this: the Jews of the day were not bearing fruit worthy of the blessings that had been given them so judgment would quickly come upon them. The fig tree was the object that represented that judgment. The fig tree did not bear worthy fruit, so it was stricken. Likewise, the Jews did not bear worthy fruit and so their destiny was sealed. In less than forty years after the death of Christ, the Roman Empire, growing weary of putting down rebellion after rebellion, finally rolled through Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The barren fig tree was a sign of things to come.