Jesus comments on the Jews’ refusal to believe Him, then He curses a fruitless fig tree, clears out money changers and improper sacrifices from the Temple, and heals more people, which excites the local children; the next day, the disciples notice the tree has withered; some days later, the Pharisees ask Jesus where He gets His authority from: John 12:37–50; Mark 11:12–14; Matthew 21:18–22; Mark 11:15–19; Matthew 21:12–17; Luke 19:45–48; Mark 11:20–33; Matthew 21:23–27; Luke 20:1–8
Why would Jesus pick on a poor fig tree?
Mark 11:12-14 The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it.
The fig tree wasn’t just any old tree. It was symbolic of Israel and her relationship with God.
The fig tree = Israel
The disciples, and any one else who happened to be listening in, would have most likely been familiar with, for example, Hosea’s description of Israel when God first chose her as a nation:
Hosea 9:10The Lord says, “O Israel, when I first found you,
it was like finding fresh grapes in the desert.
When I saw your ancestors,
it was like seeing the first ripe figs of the season.
And the decline to Jeremiah likening King Zedekiah (and his false prophets and corrupt nobles) to rotten figs.
Jesus had already summed up Israel’s history with this analogy:
Luke 13:6-8 A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. Finally, he said to his gardener, ‘I’ve waited three years, and there hasn’t been a single fig! Cut it down. It’s just taking up space in the garden.’
The gardener answered, ‘Sir, give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I’ll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer.
And now, a year later, there was still no fruit in Israel’s leadership.
The Pharisees and other religious leaders had rejected Jesus, and were looking for ways to kill Him.
The metaphorical fig tree—Israel—had been given that extra year and her leadership still had no faith in Jesus.
A prophetic act
So the point of the story is clear: cursing the fig tree was a prophetic act. That same day, He went into the Temple and wreaked havoc in the Outer Court, angry with the way a house of prayer—and the space that should have been available for the Gentiles to worship in—had been turned into a market place (or a den of thieves, as Jesus described it).
And the curse had immediate effect, by the way. The next day:
Mark 11:20-21 The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’
This was a bad sign for Jerusalem, and it would have been seen as such by a lot of people, Jews and Gentiles, believers and unbelievers alike. A dead tree outside a city gate was a widely accepted bad omen.
So why a fig tree out of season?
And this is the question a lot of people ask: why bother looking for fruit when it wasn’t the season for figs? Why not wait until summer?
Some have suggested that He should have at least seen the signs of fruit (for example a breba crop or at least small buds). But that would be missing the point: it wasn’t the fig tree itself that was the issue. It was Israel’s failure to believe Jesus: it was Israel’s lack of fruit.
Jesus also looked for fruit in Jerusalem’s leadership, almost certainly knowing He would find none.
Should He have waited until they did believe? He had already waited. The story retold by Luke suggests that Jerusalem had been given not just part of a a season, but years in which to bear fruit, and she hadn’t. The gardener (Jesus) had begged for another year and been given it, but it still wasn’t enough.
With faith, all things are possible
Jesus went on to explain that it was all about faith:
Mark 11:22-24 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.
He wasn’t talking about having the faith to do around killing random fig trees. He was talking about the faith to bear fruit, in season and out of season.
With faith in Jesus, it’s possible to do the otherwise impossible.
That was the fruit lacked by Israel.