Leviticus 27:14-Numbers 1:54; Mark 11:1-25; Psalm 46:1-11; Proverbs 10:23
Were you struck today, as I was, about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree? I’ve always wondered about this miracle. Jesus goes to look for fruit, finds only leaves because it wasn’t the season for figs, curses the tree, and then the next day, the tree is withered to its roots. It’s strange for lots of reasons – why does Jesus “take it out” on this fig tree when it wasn’t even supposed to have fruit? And why is Jesus’ last miracle one of destruction? It seems difficult to imagine why Jesus uses his power for what seems like such a petty reason (personal disappointment at not getting the fruit he wanted) and also hard to understand why Mark records it.
I’ve come to learn that when something seems off with the Bible, it’s probably my understanding. So let’s pause for a moment.
I took a look at several commentaries – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, The New International Greek Testament Commentary and The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. As you can imagine with a troubling passage like this, there were lots of theories about what was going on.
Some argue that because the fig tree (the only tree in which the fruit comes first and then the leaves) had leaves, then maybe Jesus could have expected fruit. However, knowing what we know about Jesus, that his upbringing was in the country, it’s highly unlikely that he didn’t know the fig season. Others argue that the presence of leaves, which would have been on the tree during Passover season according to horticultural experts, indicates that small green figs should have already been forming and that’s what Jesus is upset about.
But one thing everyone agrees on is Mark’s specific focus on the phrase “for it was not the season for figs” (11:13). Every early recording on this passage includes that clause, and it seems Mark has a specific reason for telling us that.
So what’s the answer then? Why does Mark include this passage? I think the answer lies in what comes in the days ahead – Jesus' indictments on Israel. As one commentator says, “A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfil; so, too, is Israel” (NIGTC, The Gospel of Mark, pg. 441). Jesus goes to the temple and finds all leaves, but no fruit. He tells the parable of the owner of a vineyard whose tenants (Israel) reject his son (Jesus). And ultimately, it’s the Jews who will send him to the cross. Jesus’ verdict on the fig tree is a verdict on the failure of God’s people to be the blessing to the world God originally planned, as we saw in his promise to Abraham.
And that’s where we come in. What Israel failed to do, save all peoples, is now our job. We are now part of God’s plan to bring all peoples to himself. I hope and pray we have better success than the withered tree of Israel.
- Esther McCurry
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