Last week’s post examined the accusation that Jesus was racist and misogynist in his relationship with the Canaanite woman. Today’s post discusses Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, oft-used as an example of Jesus acting brashly in response to hunger and frustration.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark record the story. In both accounts, Jesus cursed the fig tree after he had entered triumphantly into Jerusalem. In both versions, Jesus was hungry when he cursed the fig tree. However, Mark’s account poses the most significant problem in interpretation. It reads:
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. 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’” (Mark 11:12-14).
The first challenge is that Jesus cursed the fig tree when it was not the season for figs. Second, immediately after cursing the fig tree, Jesus entered Jerusalem and began driving out those who sold in the temple (Mark 11:15-17). Reading Mark’s account alone, one could argue about the connection between hunger, frustration, and anger in Jesus’ actions. Matthew’s account does not resolve this because it simply rearranges the sequence of events – Jesus cleansed the temple before cursing the fig tree.
The first counterargument is how one who has the power to turn stones into bread and can multiply bread to feed thousands overreacts due to hunger and frustration. How can one who fasted for forty days and nights be pushed to act for a few hours of hunger? Jesus has a trajectory of meekness in the face of difficulty and pain. When thirsty on the cross, he simply said, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).
Yet none of these explains why Jesus cursed a fig tree during an off-season. The cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple happened during the Passover period, hence, towards the end of March. The question remains: Why should Jesus expect to find ripe figs at the end of March?
The Bible commentator Adam Clarke argues: “Because figs were ripe in Judea as early as the Passover. Besides, the fig tree puts forth its fruit first, and afterwards its leaves. Indeed, this tree, in the climate which is proper for it, has fruit on it all the year round, as I have often seen”. (Commentary on Mark 11:13). Understanding the characteristics of fig trees helps clarify this.
The fig tree’s fruit generally appears before the leaves, and because the fruit is green, it blends in with the leaves right up until it is almost ripe. Therefore, when Jesus and His disciples saw from a distance that the tree had leaves, they expected it to have fruit even though it was earlier in the season than usual for a fig tree to bear fruit. Also, each tree would often produce two to three crops of figs each season. There would be an early crop in the spring followed by one or two later crops. In some parts of Israel, depending on climate and conditions, it was also possible that a tree might produce fruit in ten out of twelve months.
This also explains why Jesus and His disciples sought fruit on the fig tree even if it was not in the main growing season. The fact that the tree already had leaves on it, even though it was at a higher elevation around Jerusalem and therefore would have been outside the normal season for figs, seemed to be a good indication that there would be fruit on it.
Why did Jesus then curse the fig tree? Since the fig tree is meant to produce fruit for people, it serves no other purpose if it can no longer bear fruit. This is why Jesus said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” As Jameison-Fausset Brown’s commentary affirms, “Those words did not make the tree barren, but sealed it up in its own bareness.”
As those called to the priesthood and religious life, do we realise we are called to bear fruits? Jesus emphasised this when he said to his disciples: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Therefore, like the fig tree, the criterion for our evaluation is bearing fruit, which translates into service to the people.
The fig tree was full of leaves (successful) but lacked fruits (unfruitful). As priests and religious, are we fruitful or simply successful? Jesus says: “Every branch in me that bears no fruit he cuts away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes to make it bear even more” (John 15:2).
The three responses of Jesus, when he asked Peter if he loved him, were “Feed my sheep”, indicating that feeding his sheep is the only way we can prove we love him (John 21:15-17). On the last day, Jesus will not judge our success but our fruitfulness in the ministry, which is manifested in the relationship with the other – the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, and the stranger (Matt 25: 31-45). As I wrote in my 27 December 2021 post:
Indeed, we are not called to be successful but to be fruitful. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree for unfruitfulness, we are at risk if we are not fruitful as priests and religious.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾