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Jesus cursing fig tree

Dear Synod Fathers and Synod Mothers, last Friday during my homily I had the chance to comment briefly on the passage in Mark’s Gospel dealing with the cursing of the fig tree.  I hope that the following write-up will help to throw more light on this difficult passage.

Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu

“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.  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. And he said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again’. And his disciples heard it” (Mk.11:12-14)

Certain actions of Jesus in the Gospels sometimes cause problems for the reader.  In some cases, his actions do not seem to agree with what he does as well as with what he teaches elsewhere.  In the Gospels, we get the impression that Jesus is someone who is gentle, loving, and kind.  He comes across as the special friend of the poor and the needy.  However, several actions of his, at first glance, appear cruel, harsh, and unkind.  An example is the passage dealing with the cursing of the fig tree quoted above.  This event, related by Mark, is also found in a shorter form in Matthew (21:18ff).
There are many difficulties with this story.  Of all the miracles performed by Jesus, this is the only one that is a miracle of destruction.  (The destruction of the swine in Mk. 5:1-20 is different in that it is incidental to the healing of the demoniac). 
Some Christians find Jesus’ action in this story quite shocking.  According to some scholars, the incident cannot be historical because it is unthinkable that Jesus would destroy a fruit tree simply because it did not have fruit for him.  Other interpreters see this as a story of miraculous power wasted in the service of a quick-tempered Jesus.  Therefore, some scholars deny that this incident ever happened and claim that it is a fictitious miracle story which developed from the parable of the unfruitful fig tree in Lk. 13:6-9.  

The story of the cursing of the fig tree in Mark becomes more difficult still with the explanatory comment, “for it was not the season for figs” (Mk. 11:13).  Was it not unreasonable to curse the tree for being fruitless when, as Mark clearly says, “it was not the season for figs”?  Why would Jesus curse a fig tree if it could not bear figs at this time of year?  Mark’s explanatory comment, at first sight, makes it even more difficult to understand Jesus’ action.
To deal satisfactorily with this problem we must take into account Mark’s explanatory comment in verse 13 and the place of this incident in Mark’s gospel. Mark divides this story and puts the cleansing of the temple between the two parts.  He causes the cursing of the fig tree to be closely linked with the story of the cleansing of the temple. 

The fig tree points to the temple with all its significance for the Jewish people as the locus of God’s presence and redemptive activity.  Despite its leaves, which seem to bear witness to life and productivity, the temple has no fruit.  And just as the tree that does not bear fruit has no value except to be cut down, the temple too will be destroyed. The withering of the tree, therefore, corresponds to Jesus’ hint of the temple’s impending doom in Mk 11:17 and to his explicit statement to the three disciples in Mk 13:2.  Its theological significance comes for Mark and his readers in Mk 15:38 when the veil of the holiest of holies, the presence of God, is torn at Jesus’ death.
Mark understands Jesus’ cleansing of the temple not as a reformation of the temple worship but as an act of judgment.  The cursing of the fig tree is not an act carried out in anger against an innocent tree but is a symbolic act.  It is an acted-out parable, intended to teach Jesus’ disciples the true meaning of the cleansing of the temple.  Both are true acts of judgment.  The Messiah comes to his temple and instead of the fruit of righteousness he finds nothing but the dry leaves of unfruitful formalism and hypocrisy, and he judges it.  The cursing of the fig tree serves as a symbolic act by which the disciples are to interpret what Jesus is about to do in the temple.
The story of the cursing of the fig tree as told by Mark is an acted parable with the same lesson as the spoken parable of the landowner who came three years in succession expecting fruit from a fig tree on his property, and when year by year it proved to be fruitless, he told the man in charge of his vineyard to cut it down because it was simply wasting the ground (Lk. 13:6-9).  
In both the acted parable and the spoken parable it is quite clear that the fig tree stands for Jerusalem, indifferent to Jesus’ preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God, and thereby deserving destruction.  Elsewhere, Luke speaks of how Jesus wept over the city’s blindness to its true welfare and predicted its ruin “because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Lk. 19:41-44).  It is because the incident of the cursing of the fig tree was seen to express the same lesson that Mark, followed by Matthew, recorded it.
Interpreting the cursing of the fig tree as an acted parable of the coming judgment also sheds light on the difficult comment in Mk. 11:13 which is intended to explain it.  Mark tells us that Jesus did not curse the fig tree for being fruitless.  It was not the time for figs.  It was for another reason, which he points out to his readers.  Jesus acts out a parable of judgment for his disciples.  The cursing reveals that the cleansing of the temple was an act of judgment.  Judgment is coming on Israel.  This judgment is further foretold and described in Mk. 12:1-11 and 13:1-37.
The cursing of the fig tree ceases to be a problem when it is understood in this way.  It is not an angry act of destruction but a parabolic act of Jesus.  The cursing of the fig tree was not an irrational act carried out by an angry Jesus, but the use of a tree to reveal the truth that judgment was coming.