Did Jesus Really “Curse” a Fig Tree?

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Today’s reading for many is a reflection on the Gospel account of Jesus driving out the money changers in the temple. And just before it, in the Gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus seems particularly irritated at a certain fig tree. Are the two incidents mere coincidence or could they be part and parcel of the same irritant that is today on our Lord’s heart?

Mark 11:11-25 recounts the story with particular detail compared to his later counterpart in Matthew 21:10-22.

11 And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked round at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Beth’any with the Twelve.

Note how in Mark’s version, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem the day before the money-changer incident and went into the temple to “take a look around.” What do you think he observed there? Most likely, the same activity that was taking place the next day that would warrant his righteous outburst. Mark, whom some Jewish scholars remark as being considerably more in tune with Jewish customs than most Christian commentators have given him credit for because of his Greek decendancy, seems to be drawing particular attention to Jesus’ behavior both prior, during and following this controversial outrage of our Lord. The fact that Jesus “looked around” that day is often lost on contemporaries who like to boast of righteous anger as a justification for sudden outbursts in the public marketplace. Jesus was clearly an observant Jew.

12 On the following day, when they came from Beth’any, he was hungry.

Here again, Mark is alerting us to a key detail. Our Lord is “hungry.” Given that he seems to make a beeline for a fig tree might give the impression to Gentile readers that our Lord was quite literally “hungry” for food. But those familiar with Jewish customs and theology, as Mark demonstrates repeatedly in his Gospel version that he was, we can begin to see the making of a very poignant story-telling lesson in Mark’s parable of the Christ. One that would leave Jewish counterparts in writhing indignation if they ignored. Jesus was hungry. Hungry for Justice. Hungry for Truth.

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.

Palestinian Jews, as Jesus and his disciples were, would have known that it was not fig season but this one seemed to be sprouting leaves; leaves precede the fruit. Matthew 24:32-33 gives us further insight into what this sign might have meant to the Lord:

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.”

What is near? “The coming of the end of the age.” (Matthew 24:3)

When Jesus says he is hungry, Mark means to show us how much our Lord is ready to bring down his Justice, but the sign he sees is a false sign. It is not yet time for the coming of the end of the age. Given his observance when he “looked around in the temple” just the day before, it’s not hard to make the connection that Jesus has been pondering how to respond, and now he’s committed to it.

14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Jesus issues a withering judgement (a curse) rather than a definitive judgement (death). One brings death with much certainty, while the other is more of a death sentence. Like a man convicted of murder who must live on death row. Jesus issues a death sentence upon those who falsely represent the coming of the end of the age, deceiving others, and do not bear forth valid fruit.

It’s no wonder by the time Jesus reaches the temple for a second time that this time he does more than just “look around.”

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 any one to carry anything through the temple.

Though he cannot yet bring a judgement of death, for it is not yet the end of the age, our Lord can stop the flow through the temple. He makes it clear his temple on the earth is for prayer and nothing else. Like the withering judgement of the fig tree, Jesus proclaims that those who would bear false witness to the signs of the Kingdom of Heaven would be barred from transacting in it. Their prayers would not only not be heard but they would bear the curse upon themselves which would end in death.

17 And he taught, and said 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 sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.

19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.

While the Gospel of Matthew continues on to reveal the end of the age and the many false prophets that will appear in our times, just as the fig tree in Jesus’ time, Mark chooses to highlight another poignant principle at work in this parable. One his disciples then and today can rest assuredly on, just as those who bare falsely can rest assured that they will wither away to their roots before that great and awesome day when their root shall be removed entirely.

21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master,look! The fig tree which 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 cast 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 receive it, and you will.

Those who would walk justly with Jesus possess the same power to pass withering judgements. If we “have faith in God,” we will be able to remove every obstacle and falsity that rises up against the house of God. Every stronghold which rises before us like a false prophet who bears false witness, or a lie that shows itself without fruit, we have the power to “cast into the sea.” We have been given power over those who deceive.

But there is one more important lesson to be learned that Mark knew would also infuriate the Pharisees of his day. The key to answered prayer lies in the power to forgive.

25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Mark goes on to speak of the authority by which Jesus can forgive. It’s an authority the Pharisees question and, likewise, it’s an authority Jesus won’t reveal to them because they themselves do not recognize it.

28 and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”

29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you a question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.

30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? Answer me.”

31 And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

32 But shall we say, ‘From men’?”-they were afraid of the people, for all held that John was a real prophet.

33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

If you do not know the Authority by which you have received the power to cast mountains into the sea, the same power which looses and binds, and the same power that brings both blessing and curse, then you are like the fig tree, bearing false witness and producing no true fruit. You are as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, fearing man more than the Truth.

Jesus reveals his irritation to the disciples in that it all comes down to “faith in God,” forgiveness, and the true power which comes only through him.

Only by the power of the Blood of Jesus the Christ, Son of Man, can we ever hope to persevere unto the end of the age, producing a true witness and not becoming a tool for deception. Only through faith in “Abba” God can we hope to see our prayers answered and our mountains moved. Let us be like Jesus was that day he “looked around.” Let us be hungry.

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