December 2, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He curses a fig tree

See Matthew 21:18-22, Mark 11:12-25

When we read the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree, our first impression is that he must have had a really bad morning. He cursed the tree for not having any fruit on it, even though it wasn’t the season for figs. I guess we’ve all had days when things just didn’t go right and it helps to know that even Jesus felt that way. But let’s not get carried away. Jesus did this for a purpose.

The previous day, Jesus had had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the evening, he walked the two miles back to Bethany, where he presumably stayed with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. This was one of three places he and the Apostles stayed when they were in Jerusalem. Another was in a cave in the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. The third was another cave near the top of the Mount of Olives, known as the Cave of Eleona. It’s not clear whether “Eleona” comes from the semitic word elyona (upper) or from the Greek word elaion (cave in an olive grove).

Anyway, on Monday morning Jesus and his disciples were returning to Jerusalem to teach in the temple. He was hungry (Martha must not have given him breakfast), so he went over to a fig tree along the road. When he couldn’t find any figs on it, he said: “May no fruit ever come from you again.” According to Matthew’s account, the tree immediately dried up. Mark’s account is a bit different: The disciples found the tree withered the next day.

Matthew says that the disciples were amazed at this. My guess is that they were as amazed at Jesus’ apparent temper as they were by the tree drying up. Then Jesus used the episode to teach. He often taught by parables. This time, he wasn’t just telling his parable, he was acting it. He was performing an act similar to that of prophets in the Old Testament, similar to what Ezekiel did (Ez 12:1-20).

Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Joel and Hosea all used fig trees to designate Israel. Now Jesus was doing the same, using this action parable to represent his judgment on barren Israel, like the fig tree that wasn’t bearing fruit, for refusing to listen to his teachings.

Jesus didn’t explain all this to his disciples though. To them, he used the episode to teach the power of prayer made with unwavering faith. If they had faith, he said, they could not only do what he had just done to the fig tree, but they could also say to a mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” and it would be done. Earlier, he had said that faith the size of a mustard seed would be sufficient to move a mountain (Mt 17:20).

In Mark’s account, Jesus adds that the power of prayer demands not only faith but also forgiveness. We must forgive others if we want God to forgive us. †


Local site Links: