The Cursing of the Fig Tree
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
6 Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
The Fig Tree Conundrum
Early one morning, so the story goes, Jesus and his friends leave the village of Bethany to return to the city of Jerusalem. By the way, Bethany means “the house of figs”. It was a village well known for its fig orchards. The trip to Jerusalem is a walk of about 3 kilometers past orchards of fig trees and olive trees. For some unknown reason they have not eaten breakfast. The walk into town has stirred appetite. Jesus sees in the distance a fig tree with lots of foliage. It serves to whet his appetite even further. They approach the tree to pick some figs to eat on their journey. But surprise! There are no figs on it. Nothing but leaves. Mark the writer makes the comment. “By the way, it wasn’t the season for figs.”
It is at that moment that Jesus does something that has puzzled the readers of the New Testament. He curses the fig tree. And that thing begins to shrivel up and die. Within 24 hours it is not only dead but it is withered as though it has been dead for a very long time.
The reaction to this activity of Jesus has been interesting to say the least. Some have said “Jesus is acting just like a spoiled child! He missed his breakfast and so turns grouchy like some of us without our first cup of coffee.
Others have said, Jesus would never have acted that way. It is totally out of character. It just didn’t happen. Mark has confused his facts. Instead, someone, many years later must have seen a dead tree and invented a reason for its death, and somehow the story got passed along as gospel truth.
Some have noticed that when Matthew tells the story he softens the blow a bit. He leaves out the line “It wasn’t the season for figs.” Those words just add insult to the injury. It’s bad enough that Jesus curses a tree, but to curse it for not having figs in March makes Jesus look like a tantrum throwing child. Others have noticed that Luke omits the story all together and in its place has Jesus telling a parable about a gardener who planned to have a fig tree destroyed. The Gospel of John leaves fig trees out altogether. From the very beginning the story that Mark passes on is seen as too problematic to handle.
But Mark also knows that the story sounds preposterous. But he knows that the story is true. One of his little side notes in this story says “And his disciples heard it.” They heard him, and it stunned them too. But Mark knows that the event is too important to omit.
Of course Mark understood things about fig trees that we don’t. Mark tells us that this fig tree could be seen from far off. It was in fig tree country with hundreds of other trees. But this one stood out. It was well foliated. It had leaves galore. In Palestinian winters the fig tree loses its leaves, and in the spring it regains them. But fig trees are odd plants. The order of growth in fig trees is different than most trees. In a fig tree, fruit appears before leaves do. After the first fruit, the leaves grow, followed by the blossoms, and later a second crop of figs. But it is normal that if a tree has leaves, then it has fruit. The leaves advertise that fruit is already available. March was not the time of year to expect fruit, but since the leaves are there in abundance, fruit can be expected. There is another strange feature about fig trees. If the fruit has not appeared before the leaves, there will be no figs found on this tree at all. It has become barren.
The Cleansing of the Temple
But, as I have said, Mark knows the story sounds astounding. So he uses a clever device to let us know the real significance of this act. He starts the story of the fig tree, and then he interrupts it with another story, and then returns to finishing the first story.
The story that interrupts is just as stunning as the fig tree one. Jesus heads from cursing the fig tree, into the temple, and begins to disrupt the events that are going on there. He turns over tables, drive out the animals, and send the neatly piled money scattering over the floor. He chases people out of the temple and stops people from carrying things through the temple.
Now that too needs a few words. The Temple takes in a lot of territory. Most of it is outdoors. the centre of the Temple area was the temple proper that only the priests could enter. This inner building was then surrounded by the Court of the Israelites open only to Jewish men. Beyond that was the court of the Women, where Jewish women were allowed to come. All of this was surrounded by a wall that protected the worship area. And surrounding all of that was the court of the Gentiles. They could not get close, but they could worship God from a distance. It would be like this in our church buildings. The men were allowed in the sanctuary. The women were restricted to the balcony. The Gentiles were limited to the vestibule.
But something had happened slowly over the centuries. There was a need to exchange foreign currencies since people could offer to God only kosher cash. There was a need to provide animals for the various sacrifices. This activity moved into the court set aside for Gentiles. But something else was happening. Financial fraud. There was extortion going on in the name of God. High exchange rates were charged on exchange of currencies, with a high user fee to boot. The animal brought by the worshipper was examined and if any flaw was detected, it was unacceptable, so the temple Levites would sell you a certified animal at an exorbitant price. People knew they were being ripped off, but what could you do?
There was another nasty feature about the court of the Gentiles. It was used as a short cut across town. People carrying heavy loads, instead of going around the temple area, simply went in by one gate, carried their goods across the court of the gentiles, and went out the opposite gateway.
The night before, Jesus had looked upon this tragedy and knew that it was a perversion of what the temple had been intended for. But it was not just corrupt temple practices that bothered him. Judaism had become spiritually bankrupt. It had become barren. Like a fig tree that promised so much, and delivered so little!
The cursing of the fig tree is not an act of petulance. It is a parable acted out to make a serious point. The vital religion of Israel has become the barren faith of Judaism. The life that once coursed through the veins of this ancient faith has become mostly show and little substance. And the temple, where God was to be worshipped by all nations, has instead become a den of thieves.
The fig tree and the cleansing of the temple are warning signals to a nation. They are in dire peril. Something has happened to them, that their future is at risk. But they can turn. They can heed the message. They can still change the future. The fig tree is a warning shot across the bow of a nation and of every person. We know what happens in the next few years. Within 40 years Jerusalem will be in ruins and Judeans will be scattered again among the nations. The leadership of the nation rejected the warnings given, and they began that terrible journey down the slippery slope of national destruction.
Fulfilled in Jesus.
But these two stories take another turn, which leads us to what happened on Good Friday. The fig tree is a warning of judgment that is coming, unless Israel accepts the leadership of its true king. The cleansing of the temple is a warning that the whole temple will come tumbling down around their heads, unless they make this house into the house of God for all nations.
But it is interesting to note, that there is in Jesus a great reluctance that that should ever happen to God’s people. And so Jesus offers himself to be the fig tree that is cursed, and the temple that is to be destroyed, so that Israel does not have to bear the judgment they have been racing towards.
Listen to the words of St. Paul. He quotes a passage from the law (Galatians 3:13, Deuteronomy 21:22) “Cursed is everyone that hangs upon a tree.”and then he goes on to say, “But Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being cursed on our behalf.” The judgment that fell of the fig tree, fell of Jesus, so it did not have to fall on the nation.
In the Gospel of John when Jesus cleanses the temple, the conversation that follows is stunning. The priests ask Jesus on what authority he is doing this. Jesus responds with the strange words, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up….” Then John says, “he was speaking not of the temple of Jerusalem but of “the temple of his own body.” He took the destruction upon himself, so that it did not have to fall on Judaism.
God would rather die that see anyone undergo the judgment that they had sown. For God is like that. He would rather take upon himself the judgment of sin, rather than anyone bear the consequences of their own misdeeds. He would rather let the judgment fall on himself rather than the temple in Jerusalem. He would rather be the cursed fig tree, than let his nation go to judgment. So he humbled himself even to death on a cross.
When I look at the sufferings that Jesus Christ chose, it sobers me. It also exhilarates me. Jesus bore the curse of the sins of the whole world. He took upon himself the judgment that sin was earning, so that I would not have to suffer its consequences.
That is the good news of that makes that Awful Friday into Good Friday. It is what we celebrate every time we take communion. It is the best news in the world.