Seeing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, Jesus went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no-one ever eat fruit from you again’... In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. Mark 11:12-14, 20
If I had to draw up a list of New Testament passages which are hard to understand, this “cursing of the fig-tree” would certainly come in the top ten. It simply bristles with difficulties...
For a start, it is a story of destruction, and this seems completely alien to the kind of healing, life-giving things Jesus normally did.
Second, taken at face value it could be seen as portraying Jesus in a bad light. Had he (as we sometimes put it) got out of bed on the wrong side that morning? Was this just an act of tetchiness and ill-temper? To make matters even worse, Mark actually goes to the trouble of informing us that “it was not the season for figs”. How unreasonable, then, for Jesus to get grumpy when he finds none! (Matthew’s account of the same incident omits that detail: was he being tactful?)
Third, the sequence of events in Mark 11 and the parallel passage in Matthew 21 is very difficult to follow. Both accounts are linked with the story of “the cleansing of the temple” in Jerusalem, but the timing of the various events is hard to harmonise.
You might end up thinking “Would we be better off without this story? What can we really learn from it?”
Well, all I can say is that the early church obviously saw fit to preserve it, so presumably they didn’t think it showed Jesus up in a bad light. Still more, especially for those of us who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, the Holy Spirit saw fit to ensure that it found its way into the Gospels. So God, it seems, wants us to puzzle out some positive lessons.
I can’t pretend to sort out the various difficulties I have mentioned: if I tried, it would be a waste of your time and mine. If you want to do so, then you must look to someone far cleverer and more expert than me!
But I think it’s true to say that one lesson here is clearly stated by Jesus, and that another is strongly implied.
The clearly stated lesson is about faith and prayer.
If you go to Mark 11:22-25 you find Jesus’ response to Simon Peter’s exclamation, “Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!” Jesus replies: “Have faith in God...” He then speaks about how such faith can “move mountains” (this was a common saying among Jewish teachers to refer to remarkable and miraculous events). And he goes on to say that “...whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
That striking statement alone also raises some big questions!
But however exactly we are to take it, if nothing else, it reminds us of the miracle-working power of prayer.
So let’s at least take this away: those prayers we pray day by day, sometimes quite repetitively, sometimes almost out of a sense of duty, are a vital part of God’s purposes for this world. One day they will explode with power! One day they will come to a wonderful fulfilment!
So... pray! And keep on praying!
The strongly implied lesson is about the curse of fruitlessness.
Go back to the story...
Jesus has come to Jerusalem, God’s chosen “capital city” on earth. And he has come to the majestic temple, God’s chosen “dwelling place” on earth. And what has he found? Answer: a dearth of spiritual life, an absence of godly witness.
Oh yes, the city and its greatest building looked splendid on the outside - just as that fig-tree looked beautiful at a distance with its full sprouting of leaves. But where was the fruit?
When Jesus “cursed” the tree and declared that no-one would ever eat fruit from it again, was he saying the same thing - in the form of a dramatic, acted-out parable - as when he “cursed” the activities of the people hurrying about their business in the temple? He quoted the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’” - and then added the devastating words: “But you have made it a den of robbers”.
As if to say: “Yes, you are God’s chosen people. Yes, this building means everything to you. But your day is done! Something new and revolutionary is here...”, pointing, of course, to himself and to the coming cross and resurrection.
(This raises questions about the place of Judaism today in the purposes of God - but that’s a topic for another day.)
A warning about fruitlessness? Yes, indeed. But let’s not imagine this only applies to Israel. What about the church? What about you? What about me?
Father, give me please the faith to pray and pray and keep on praying; and also the blessing of a truly fruitful life. Amen.