Mt 21:18 Now early in the morning, as he returned to the city, he was hungry. 21:19 After noticing a fig tree by the road he went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. He said to it, “Never again will there be fruit from you!” And the fig tree withered at once. 21:20 When the disciples saw it they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” 21:21 Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 21:22 And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”
Irrational and petulant?
According to William Barclay (DSB),
‘There can be no doubt that this, without exception, is the most difficult story in the gospel narrative,’ adding that the story neither rings true, nor is reasonable (since this was not the season for figs, v13).
And T.W. Manson complains that this is
‘a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper (for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season); as it stands it is simply incredible.’ (Quoted by Edwards)
Much of the concern about the apparent irrationality and petulance of Jesus words and action concern words found in Mark’s account:
It was not the season for figs – Harper’s Bible Commentary (on Matthew) notes that Matthew omits this ‘difficult observation’, which ‘makes the cursing unreasonable’.
The same commentary (on Mark) suggests that this comment
‘reflects apocalyptic determinism. Paraphrased it means, “it was determined that this would not be the proper time for the Jewish leaders to bear fruit,” i.e., receive Jesus. The barren tree and the mercantile Temple symbolize to Mark’s community that the older religious institutions and observances are not binding (cf. 7:1–23), and they are now to see their community as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a “house of prayer for all nations” (11:17; Isa. 56:7).’
Cole comments that Jesus was presumably looking for the small early figs, that were considered a delicacy (Hos 9:10; see also Song 2:13).
Schnabel, while not regarding these early figs as necessarily a ‘delicacy’, agrees. They develop on the old branches in March, and ripen as the new leaves sprout in late March. (It was now near Passover, i.e. early April. The main crop of figs would grow on the new branches and would be harvested in August-October).
Distinguishing, as other scholars do, between the mature and the early figs (Heb. paggim) Edwards suggests that the present expression means: ‘It was, of course, not the season for figs, but it was for paggim.’
A lesson, then, about faith
Correctly understood, then,
‘the cursing of the fig tree (Mk 11:12-14,20-25) was no petulant outburst, nor even primarily a lesson about faith, but a symbolic demonstration of God’s impending judgement on Israel (comparable to the cleansing of the Temple around which Mark sandwiches this miracle-story-see Mk 11:15-19). (DJG)
France (NBC) agrees:
‘This apparently pointless act of power is generally understood from its context (and from the way Mark interweaves it with the story of the temple incident) to have a symbolic purpose. The fig-tree which produces leaves and therefore promises fruit but offers nothing to eat is a picture of the empty worship of the temple (cf. Mi. 7:1; Je. 8:13). The withering of the tree is then a visible pointer to the fate of the temple which Jesus predicts in 23:38; 24:2.’
Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that, in Mark, the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple ‘are “intercalated” and interpret each other.’ There may be a link with Lk 13:6-9, where the unfruitful tree symbolises an unfaithful people (Isa 5:1–7; Jer 8:13; Mic 7:1). The cursing of the tree, together with the expulsion of the traders from the Temple, are parabolic actions, such as we find in Jer 27:2; Ezek 4:1–5:17.
‘The fig tree was a well-known symbol for Israel in the Old Testament (cf., e.g. Jer 24:1-10; Mic 7:16; Hos 9:10), and Jesus had already told a parable about a fig tree in danger of being cut down, clearly symbolising the peril in which the Jewish nation placed herself by rejecting her Messiah (Lk 13:6-9). Jesus, like many of the Old Testament prophets before him, was dramatising his message with an object lesson or “enacted parable”. Just as he withered a tree that bore no fruit, so also God would take away the privileges of Israel is she did not repent and turn to her appointed Saviour.’ (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p131).
Commenting specifically on Mark’s version@
‘Jesus’ entry into the city in Mark’s account…does not fulfill any Jewish nationalistic hopes “to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles” (Pss. Sol. 17:21-46). Jesus, rather, brings judgement upon unfruitful Israel (Mk 11:12-14,20-21; cf. Ho 9:10-17) which has turned God’s “house of prayer for all nations” into a “den of brigands” (Mk 11:15-19; cf. Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11). As Mark concludes his story, Jesus maintains his claim to kingship, (Mk 14:61-62; 15:2) but over the universal realm of the “Son of God” (Mk 15:39; cf. Mk 12:6,35-37).’ (DJG)
In summary then, Jesus’ behaviour seems irrational. But the incident is an acted parable. To Jesus, the fig tree, fair, but barren, spoke of Jerusalem, full of religious observance but devoid of true fruitfulness.
According to the IVP NT Background Commentary,
‘At this time of year, edible figs were still about six weeks away, but the bland fruit had recently appeared on the tree in late March; they would become ripe by late May. These were the early figs that preceded the main crop of late figs, which were ripe for harvest from mid-August into October. If only leaves appeared, without the early figs, that tree would bear no figs that year-early or late. Because everyone would know that it was “not yet the season for real figs,” Jesus is making a point about trees that only pretend to have good fruit (cf. Jer 24).’
‘In March fig trees in Israel normally produce small buds followed by large green leaves in April. The small buds were edible “fruit.” The time when Jesus “cursed” the fig tree was the Passover, that is, April. Since the tree had no buds it would bear no fruit that year. But “the season for figs” was late May and June, when the normal crops of figs ripened. Jesus’ denouncing of the tree symbolized Israel’s absence of spiritual vitality (like the absence of the buds) in spite of her outward religiosity (like the green leaves).’ (Basic Bible Interpretation)
This incident, is, no doubt, to be linked with Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem, and with the cleansing of the temple. The tree was in leaf, but fruitless; the temple was a splendid sight, yet devoid of true godliness; Jerusalem was full of joyful, expectant pilgrims, yet about to reject her King. All three incident belong together, and interpret one another.
See also this article by Greg Lanier.