Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?

A fig tree in early spring.

Early one spring morning, just before Passover, Jesus walked with his disciples up the Mt. of Olives toward Jerusalem (Matt. 21:18).  They followed the same trail on which he had ridden a donkey the day before surrounded by enthusiastic pilgrims, the day Christians call Palm Sunday.*  But on this, the next morning, there is no mention of crowds.  It seems they had not yet reached the campsite on top of the hill where many pilgrims were gathered for Passover.  Instead, they were still passing the quiet orchards on the far side of the Mt. of Olives, near the small village of Bethphage.** 

*After Jesus entered the Temple and cast out the moneychangers and those selling doves on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:12), he returned to the small village of Bethany on the far (east) side of the Mt. of Olives to spend the night with his friends (Matt. 21:17).

**Here Jesus’ disciples had found a donkey for him to ride on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:1-2).

As they walked along, Jesus became hungry and noticed a lonely fig tree standing beside the road. To find a fig tree here was no surprise.  Even today, wild figs can be seen growing here and there on the Mt. of Olives.  The village of Bethphage [bet-pah-GHEE] itself also hinted at the presence of figs:  its name means “House (or Place) of the Unripe Fig.”

When Jesus approached the tree, he poked around among the branches looking for fruit.  But he didn’t find any, since as Mark correctly reminds us, it was not yet the season for figs (Mark 11:13).*  So Jesus cursed the tree (“No longer will there be fruit from you forever”), and it withered (Matt. 21:19). 

*In Israel, figs usually ripen after Passover.  They are one of the species that ripen during the fifty days of agricultural uncertainty between Passover and Pentecost (the time of the Counting of the Omer).

To us, this seems shockingly harsh and inappropriate.  Why would he curse a tree just because it lacked fruit, especially when it wasn’t the season for figs?  It’s an unexpected action, like those the rabbis would sometimes use to get the attention of their students.  So what was the message he wanted his disciples to understand from this?

Jesus wasn’t ignorant of the seasons.  The late fruit and leaves of the fig is the whole point of his parable in Matthew 24:  “Now learn the parable from the fig tree:  when its branch is already tender and it puts out its leaves, you know that the summer is near” (Matt. 24:32).  The leaves of the fig tree appear later than other trees.  So when the fig tree puts out its leaves, you know that summer is right around the corner.*

* Jesus uses this image to talk about events that will take place immediately before his return, especially the signs in the heavens (Matt. 24:29).  When we see these things taking place, it means that he himself is about to appear (Matt. 24:30). 


Unripe figs

Normally, tiny leaves first appear on the bare gray branches in March, together with unripe figs.* This fruit is hard and tasteless, liable to fall off the tree in a late winter storm (Rev. 6:13).  Those that ripen, usually in May or June, become the bikkuroth [bik-ku-ROTE], the first-ripe figs that were so highly prized in Israel (Isa. 28:4, Jer. 24:2, Hos. 9:10, Micah 7:1).**

* The unripe pagee [pah-GEE] figs mentioned in the name Bethphage. 

** The transition between these two types of figs is described in the Song of Solomon in a beautiful passage about the blossoming of spring:  “The fig tree has made its unripe figs (pagee) spicy” (Song 2:13).  The pagee figs, in other words, have ripened into bikkuroth

But when Jesus approached this fig tree, there were leaves, but no figs (Matt. 21:19, Mark 11:13).  This was unusual, but not unheard of.  In some years, some trees will not put out any fruit at all.  Jesus mentioned just such a situation in a parable he told earlier, when he and the disciples were still making their way up to Jerusalem. 

The occasion was a discussion about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate had killed in Jerusalem (Luke 13:1).  Some in the crowd thought this happened because they were especially bad sinners.  But Jesus’ response was sharp and clear:  “No, I say to you; but if you don’t repent, all of you will perish in the same way” (Luke 13:3).*  To reinforce the point, he told a parable about a fig tree that bore no fruit for three years (Luke 13:6-9).  So the owner decided to cut it down.  But the gardener asked him to wait another year.  He would fertilize and care for it.  But if after another year it still didn’t bear, he would cut the tree down.  The central point of the parable is clear:  a tree without fruit will eventually be destroyed.  Those who don’t repent will be cut off, just like the fig tree. 

* Many of those listening to Jesus were in fact killed in the war with Rome forty years later.

Jesus wasn’t the only prophet to mention a fig tree without fruit.  Jeremiah said, “I will make an end of them, declares the LORD; there will be no grapes on the vine, and no figs on the fig tree, and the leaf will wither, and what I have given them will pass away” (Jer. 8:13).  Jeremiah’s tree without figs is a picture of destruction:  a destruction that would come because of Israel’s apostasy (Jer. 8:5).*

* This destruction took place in Jeremiah’s own lifetime, when the Babylonians invaded and conquered the nation. 

The prophecy of Micah is even closer:  “Woe to me!*  For I have become like the gatherings of summer fruit; like the gleanings of a grape harvest.  There is not a cluster of grapes to eat; a first-ripe fig my soul desires.  The godly one has perished from the land, and the upright among man is not” (Micah 7:1,2).**  Micah laments the lack of good fruit, a picture of the lack of godly people in the land. 

* The land of Israel itself is speaking.

**The key to these lines is the timing of the fruit harvest in August or September.  This is two to three months after the ripening of the bikkuroth (the first-ripe figs) in May and June.  At the harvest, the season of first-ripe figs has passed, and none can be found. 

Jesus, too, was searching for a first-ripe fig and couldn’t find one:  the tree he was looking on had no fruit at all.  It deserved to be cut down and replaced with a fruitful tree.  So Jesus cursed the tree.  He didn’t give any explanation of what he was doing.  But for those who knew Biblical prophecy, the meaning was clear.  It was a prophecy of God’s coming judgment and destruction of an unfruitful generation. 

Both Matthew and Mark confirm this understanding by the events they place just before and after it in their gospels.  The first of these is the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus cast out all those who were buying and selling in an area that should have been for worship (Matt. 21:12,13).*  This was a public rebuke to the priestly leadership, who allowed these people to be there for a price:  an unholy bribe paid to the leadership of the Temple. 

* In Matthew, the cleansing of the Temple took place the day before, on Palm Sunday.  In Mark, the cleansing of the Temple is placed between the cursing of the fig tree and its withering to emphasize the connection between the two events (Mark 11:15-26). 

The second is his debate with the high priests and elders.*  This is when Jesus told a parable about some tenant farmers who refused to give the landowner his part of the harvest (Matt. 21:33-41).  The penalty  that would come from this injustice was clear to those listening.  They said:  “Wicked men!  He will destroy them completely and rent out the vineyard to other farmers who will pay him the fruit at the proper times” (Matt. 21:41).  Then Jesus explained the meaning:  “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a people yielding its fruit” (Matt. 21:43).  Who was he talking about?  “The high priests and the Pharisees…understood that he was speaking about them” (Matt. 21:45). 

* The high priests and the elders (some of whom were Pharisees) made up the Sanhedrin Council, the highest religious and political assembly in the land.  The high priests (sometimes translated “chief priests”) were those who had held the honor of the high priesthood previously together with the current high priest.    

The cursing of the fig tree was another expression of this same message.  The leadership of the nation would be destroyed, with terrible consequences for the entire nation, and the kingdom of God given to those willing to be obedient.  All this took place forty years later in the Jewish war with Rome.

There is no hint in Matthew or Mark that the disciples understood what Jesus was doing at the time.  It seems to have taken years of reflection to understand so much of what Jesus said and did (Luke 18:34, John 12:16).  They were simply amazed by the miraculous withering of the fig tree.*  So Jesus took the opportunity to teach them about faith—the very faith that was lacking in the nation’s leaders.  “If you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what happened to the fig tree, but if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen” (Matt. 21:21). 

At once” in Matthew (Matt. 21:19), the next day in Mark (Mark 11:20).  The difference reflects the way each of them explains the cursing of the fig tree by placing it with other similar events.  They are concerned with the meaning of what happened, not with an exact chronology.

The faith Jesus spoke of was not just a zealous boldness.  The word itself (pistos) implies trust:  a trust in God.  This is stated directly in Mark, where Jesus says (literally in Greek), “Have the faith of God” (Mark 11:22).  Our faith should not be our own, based on belief in our own power or righteousness.  This is what leads to religious hypocrisy, which in the end turns religion against God himself and religious institutions into dens of theft and immorality awaiting judgment.  Instead we must have God’s own faith, the perfect trust that God himself has and earnestly desires to share with us.    

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