The Fig Tree and the Temple in Mark 11:12-16
Jesus’ cursing of the unfruitful fig tree presents Christians with a dilemma unique in the Gospels. A cursory reading of the text portrays Jesus as acting quite out of character, using his divine power in selfish anger to curse a mere tree because it did not act contrary to nature by providing him fruit out of season to satisfy his hunger. Many ideas have been brought forward in an effort to explain the apparent anomaly of Jesus’ behavior in the fig tree incident. These range from flatly rejecting the authenticity of the account to blaming the confusion on a problem of "misplaced clauses habitual with Mark" (Cotter 66).
I believe the account is best understood, however, when it is taken just as it is written, and when it is interpreted in light of: 1) Mark’s overall goal of declaring the identity and authority of Jesus and 2) the significance of the fig tree in Jewish and Roman culture. In this paper, I will suggest that Mark intentionally designed the account as it stands for the purpose of intensifying the meaning of Jesus’ identity and authority, as well as declaring the fate that awaited Jerusalem.
The account of the cursing of the fig tree (11:12-14, 20-26) is interrupted by the description of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (15-19). This a-b-a structure makes evident the connection between the fig tree and the temple (Lane 400). It is instructive to note, however, that even this structure is sandwiched between another—two accounts pointing directly to Jesus’ identity and authority (Hooker 261): Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the colt, declared as the one who comes in the name of the Lord (11:1-11) and the questioning of his authority by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (11:27-33). The entire chapter, then, forms an elaborate a-b-c-b-a structure, a carefully constructed pericope that leads the reader to a greater understanding of Mark’s central issue: the identity and authority of Jesus.
First, Jesus is identified and hailed as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, who ushers in the kingdom of the Messiah, the son of David (1-11). Next, Jesus instructs his disciples, using the figure of the fig tree, about what will befall the nation that has rejected its king (12-14). He then enters the temple and cleanses it, acting within his authority as Messiah, and the chief priests and the scribes reject him and begin looking for ways to kill him (15-19). Next, Jesus and his disciples pass by the fig tree on the way back to Jerusalem and find that Jesus’ declaration that no one would eat fruit of it again had become reality, which leads to instruction about faith, prayer and forgiveness (20-26). The structure of this pericope is then concluded by the account of the chief priests’, scribes’ and elders’ refusal to accept Jesus’ authority (27-33). Chapter 11, therefore, is consistent with the overall focus of the Gospel of Mark: the identity and authority of Jesus. With Mark’s structure in mind, we will now proceed to analyze the cursing of the fig tree, beginning in verse 12.
As Mark sets up the story, he points out several facts. It was the day after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12). Jesus and his disciples were walking from Bethany (12), where they had spent the night (11), toward Jerusalem (15). Jesus was hungry (12). He saw a fig tree in leaf in the distance. He went to it to see if it might have any fruit, but found only leaves (13). Then Mark adds the confounding clause, "for it was not the season for figs" (13d). This is the troubling element for many who find this passage difficult. If Jesus’ purpose in approaching the fig tree were simply because he was hungry, as Mark intimates, and it was not even the season for figs, which Jesus must have known before he even approached the tree, then how can he be justified in saying to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again" (14)? Before we consider the answer to that question, we need to take note of additional facts provided by Mark.
When Jesus made the statement to the tree, Mark notes that "his disciples heard it" (14c). Picking up the story in verse 20, after the cleansing of the temple, we find that the fig tree had not only withered away, but had withered away to its roots (20). We are also told that Peter "remembered," and that he called Jesus’ attention to the withered tree, saying Jesus had "cursed" it (21), even though the word "curse" was not used in verse 14. Then, without apparent transition, Mark says Jesus "answered" them (though no question is posed) by giving instruction about faith that can remove mountains (22-26)—another enigmatic passage for many Christians, which we shall comment about later.
Let us now consider how the facts provided by Mark serve to clarify the meaning of what would otherwise be a troubling passage. First, we need to note that "his disciples heard it" (14c). The presence of this statement indicates that Jesus’ pronouncement on the tree was a teaching situation. Jesus’ words were intended to instruct his disciples, and the incident, therefore, was intended to provide the opportunity to teach them and the reader. In contrast, we find Jesus again teaching immediately after he cleansed the temple (17), and Mark tells the reader that "when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they were looking for a way to kill him" (18). Mark often provides a reaction to Jesus’ actions and instruction —astonishment (10:51), grief (10:22), inability to understand (9:32), etc. In this case, the response from those who "heard it," unlike his disciples in 14c, is to reject Jesus and look for ways to kill him.
Once we recognize that the fig tree incident is recorded as a teaching situation, the lesson of which is given in the events and sayings of Jesus in the following verses, the reasons for Mark’s letting the reader know that Jesus was hungry (12), that he knew the distant fig tree was in leaf (13), and that it was not the season for figs (14), begin to come into focus. The fact that Jesus was hungry provides not only the immediate reason to approach the tree (a fact essential to the narrative — approaching a fruitless tree only to be disappointed would be meaningless unless someone was hungry), it is also vital to the prophetic declaration Jesus was to make. Many scholars agree that Jesus would have had in mind such passages as Jeremiah 8:13: "When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them." The fact that Jesus was hungry and approached the fig tree looking for fruit illustrates his identity and authority as the Judge of Israel who finds that the nation, despite its "leafy" appearance, has not produced the fruit God desired.
Another view of why Mark points out that Jesus was hungry is suggested by A. de Q. Robin in connection with Micah 7:1-6:
It is quite conceivable that seeing the fig tree brought this Micah passage to the mind of Jesus and in accordance with the Rabbinic practice of indicating a passage of scripture by quoting its opening words, he was heard by the disciples to say: "My soul desires the first ripe fig." This could quite easily lead to the misunderstanding that he was hungry, when in fact he was commenting on the state of the nation and its leaders, before pronouncing the judgement of God upon them first in the symbolical action of cursing the fig tree, then in the cleansing of the Temple (280).
There is no question that Jesus had in mind the fig tree as a symbol of the nation and its leaders in accordance with the Old Testament prophets, nor that Jesus did, on occasion, indicate a passage of Scripture by quoting its opening words (as in Mark 15:34), but I would expect to find in the text the actual quotation of the opening words if that is what Mark intended. Although I agree with Robin’s assessment of the meaning of the passage, I do not find it necessary to conclude that there was a "misunderstanding that he was hungry." Rather, I see the fact that Jesus was hungry as necessary to the unfolding of the lesson he was about to teach, and with Robin, as symbolic of God’s desire to find fruit on his beloved, but stripped "tree," Israel.
Likewise, then, the fact that "it was not the season for figs" (13d) becomes essential to the sense of the passage. Jesus was not out to condemn a non-bearing tree; he was pronouncing judgment against the religious barrenness of the nation. The tree is not in trouble, the nation is. The tree has not rejected its Messiah, the nation has. The tree is being used as a symbol, not the object itself, of the judgment. If it had been the season for figs, then the tree would have itself borne certain responsibility, and its judgment would have applied as much to itself as to the nation, watering down the force of the symbolism. But Jesus is not interested in judging fig trees. The focus is, rather, on the nation, the temple, the Jewish leadership. Therefore, Mark makes plain that it was not the season for figs. (Matthew does not include the clause, "it was not the season for figs." This is easily explained by the fact that Matthew’s Judean readership would know that spring is not the season for figs (Cotter 63), something that would not necessarily be evident to all of Mark’s readers.) I believe William Lane is correct when he asserts the following:
If the incident occurred in the period approaching Passover, the parenthetical statement in verse 13c is incontrovertible and suggests that Jesus had no expectation of finding edible figs. Events have meaning beyond their face value; they become significant as they are interpreted. The unexpected and incongruous character of Jesus’ action in looking for figs at a season when no fruit could be found would stimulate curiosity and point beyond the incident to its deeper significance (400).
The fact that it was not the season for figs, then, should not make Jesus appear unreasonable, as some have assumed; rather, it underscores the point of the passage: the nation has not borne fruit — its spiritual leaders are incapable of recognizing the Messiah, the temple is a den of robbers and not a house of prayer for the nations — and the Judge has arrived to pass sentence. As Cole observes, "Like tree, like temple, like nation; the parallel is exact" (177).
To gain a deeper insight into the prophetic symbolism of Jesus’ action, we must now turn briefly to the significance of the fig tree in Jewish and Roman culture. As William Telford’s extensive research demonstrates, the fig tree held a special place in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture (Telford 277). Its fruit, whether fresh, dried, or pressed into cakes was highly esteemed. Its leaves and other parts provided medicines. Its sap was used in the production of cheese. It gave shade, and its blossoming was a sign that winter was over.
Perhaps of greatest significance, however, in Jesus’ selection of a fig tree as the symbol of Israel’s judgment are three other factors: First, in Greco-Roman culture the fig tree was associated with various deities, primarily the tree god Dionysus (284). Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree, then, besides demonstrating his identity and authority as Judge of the nation of Israel (which is the primary purpose of the miracle) would have also demonstrated his superiority over the gods of the empire (289).
Second, in Greco-Roman culture, the sudden withering or blossoming of any tree was considered a powerful omen of coming destruction or blessing (296). The withering of a fig tree outside the city of Jerusalem would likely have been seen, especially by Mark’s gentile readers, as "a portent of disaster for that city" (300).
Third, as referred to above (and certainly the most significant factor of the three), the fig tree was regarded in the Jewish Scriptures as symbolic of the nation of Israel. Lane summarizes:
The prophets frequently spoke of the fig tree in referring to Israel’s status before God (e.g. Jer. 8:13; 29:17; Hos. 9:10, 16; Joel 1:7; Micah 7:1-6), while the destruction of the fig tree is associated with judgment (Hos. 2:12; Isa. 3:4; cf. Lk. 13:6-9). In this context the fig tree symbolizes Israel in Jesus’ day, and what happens to the tree the terrible fate that inevitably awaited Jerusalem (400).
The cursing of the fig tree, then, is not a strange and unexplainable aberration in Jesus’ character, nor in Mark’s Gospel, but a powerful and culturally meaningful pronouncement of judgment against the people who should have borne fruit by accepting their Messiah, but instead had rejected him.
The account of the cleansing of the temple (15-19) illustrates the extent to which the Jewish leadership had gone in losing contact with God’s purpose for the temple and for his people Israel. Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7, pointing out that the temple is to be a house of prayer for all peoples (17). Yet, the High Priest had instituted the practice of selling sacrificial animals and ritually pure items in the Court of the Gentiles, a practice which made it impossible for the gentiles to worship there (Lane 404-407). Furthermore, the general corruption of the High Priesthood and the religious leadership is evidenced by the fact that they responded to Jesus’ zeal for the sanctity of the temple by deciding to kill him (18)—the supreme declaration of their refusal to accept his identity and authority.
That the issue at stake is acceptance or rejection of Jesus as Messiah is again highlighted by Jesus’ discourse on faith, prayer, and forgiveness in verses 22-26. Peter remembers Jesus’ declaration against the fig tree and calls Jesus’ attention to it (21). Mark then writes, "Jesus answered them, `Have faith in God’" (22), though no specific question had been posed. The question, however, is implied: "What is the meaning of this?" (There is no need here to answer the question, "How did you do that?" although what follows also answers that question. Jesus is not explaining how to curse fig trees, he is explaining what should be learned from this event.) Jesus’ answer is simply the encouraging admonition: "Have faith in God." He points them to "quiet confidence in the power and goodness of God" (Lane 410). This is what the chief priests and the scribes, by contrast, did not have. They were prepared to kill the Messiah. But those who accept the identity and authority of Jesus are the ones who have faith in God. In fact, to have faith in God is to accept the identity and authority of Jesus.
Jesus’ words in verses 23-24 must be understood in light of verse 22 (rather than as a carte blanche for personal willfulness, as they are sometimes misinterpreted). Whatever is asked in faith, without doubting, will be granted, so long as it is within the context of God’s goodness and sovereignty. Even more, these verses should be understood in light of the entire chapter, and in light of Mark’s entire Gospel. Mark is emphasizing the identity and authority of Jesus, and the monumental consequences of accepting or rejecting him. Although some scholars prefer to see "this mountain" (23) as referring to the Mount of Olives (Gundry 649; Lane 410), it would be consistent with the point of the passage if it refers to the temple mount, as asserted by Hooker:
Whatever its origin, the inclusion of the saying at this point suggests that Mark is now interpreting it of the temple mount. In contrast to Jewish expectation that at the Last Day "the mountain of the house of the Lord" would be exalted and "established as the highest of the mountains" (Micah 4:1), Jesus now pronounces judgement on it and declares that it will be submerged in the sea. The sea was the place of destruction (cf. 5.13; 9.42) (270).
Through faith in Jesus, acceptance of his identity and authority, believers enter into his victorious power, and nothing consistent with the perfect will of God is impossible for them. Though it is impossible to be reconciled to God by one’s own effort, through faith in Jesus all things are possible, even reconciliation to God. It is only through faith in the power and authority of Jesus, the One who comes in the name of the Lord, that prayer in accord with the will and purpose of God can be offered in unwavering assurance. The importance of forgiveness then becomes plain (25). Faith in Jesus requires a heart of humility that forgives its neighbor, not the hateful and unforgiving heart of the chief priests and scribes. (Verse 26, while consistent with the thought, is not considered part of the original text, and is not included in the NRSV.)
The destruction of the fig tree stands as a continuing testimony to any nation, institution, church or person that God demands fruit of his creation. All blessings, resources or advantages any human or group of humans possess have been granted by God. God, like the master who gave the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), expects what he has given to be put to use in his service to bring honor and glory to him. But the lesson of the withered fig tree is not merely that God expects fruit. The vital, overarching concern here is that God expects belief. He expects faith in the one he has sent, and this life-changing faith is the fruit for which he is looking!
The central issue is twofold: 1) no fruit can be borne unless one recognizes and accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Master and 2) to accept Jesus Christ is to bear fruit for God. The leadership of Israel was barren, like the fig tree, because they refused to believe. For any variety of reasons, primarily their desire to hold on to what was most valuable to them, they would not accept the identity and authority of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Unlike the fig tree, which was incapable of bearing fruit out of season, those who know the Lord can and will bear fruit in and out of season. The impossible becomes possible through faith in the One who comes in the name of the Lord. The mountains of institutionalized worship, of fruitless reliance on systems, formulas, and traditions of human origin to bring about righteousness melt away before the sheer power of faith in what God does in Jesus Christ.
Believe in the Lord, and we become "fig trees" that bear fruit we could never have borne of ourselves. Sins are forgiven, redemption becomes reality, and we pass from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God only when we forsake everything and believe in him, when we take up our cross and follow him.
The only thing that awaits those who will not accept his authority, who will not believe in him and follow him, is judgment — complete destruction, "from the roots." Conversely, what awaits those who believe in him, who forgive as they are forgiven, who, only through faith in him, are able to remove all obstacles and barriers to true life, is eternal communion with God and all the saints — from every nation — gathered in triumphal joy in the spiritual temple that shall never need cleansing.
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