The Cursing of the Fig Tree
A Twofold Lesson on Faith
ONE of the more puzzling passages in the Bible is the account of Jesus and the barren fig tree. According to Mark 11:12-14, 20-24, when Jesus saw a certain fig tree with leaves but no fruit, he cursed it and, as a result, the tree withered. Yet, as Mark plainly says, it wasn’t the season for figs. Why, then, did Jesus curse this fig tree? And why did Mark, under inspiration, record this incident? While some of Christendom’s commentators have been embarrassed by this account, not only do the facts justify Jesus’ actions, but they also reveal that Jesus was teaching a twofold lesson on faith!
For example, while figs don’t usually mature until June, fruit buds usually appear on the branches of fig trees as early as February. In fact, this occurs two months before leaves appear on the branches in late April or early May. So by the time a fig tree has its leaves, it should surely have figs. This helps us to appreciate that when Jesus saw this particular fig tree in late March, while it wasn’t the season for fig trees to have mature figs, it also wasn’t the season for fig trees to have leaves.
The fact that this tree did have leaves shows that it was unseasonably mature. Surely it would not have been unreasonable for Jesus to expect that such a tree would also be unseasonably early with its fruit. Yet, this tree was unproductive. Indeed, as Mark states, the tree had “nothing but leaves,” that is, no fruit. Certainly the leaves gave that tree a deceptive appearance.
But why did Jesus curse this unproductive fig tree? Jesus’ words on the occasion, as recorded in Mark 11:22-25, provide a clue to the answer. As Jesus explained, this was a lesson for them to “have faith in God.” What did the withering of this fig tree have to do with faith? First of all, it was Jesus’ faith that made the curse effective. Evidently, Jesus was using this occasion to provide an object lesson on the power of faith. As Jesus stated: “All the things you pray and ask for have faith that you have practically received, and you will have them.”—Mark 11:24.
But there also seems to be another connection between the withering of this fig tree and the quality of faith. Just three months prior to this incident Jesus uttered a parable about an unfruitful fig tree that needed to be cut down. (Luke 13:6-9) And what was pictured by the fig tree of this parable? This unfruitful fig tree was a symbol of the ancient Jewish nation.—Compare Matthew 21:43.
So it is reasonable to believe that the barren fig tree that Jesus cursed was also a symbol of the unfruitful ancient Jewish nation. Although this nation had been in a covenant relationship with God, the appearance was deceptive, for the nation proved barren of good fruitage, even rejecting God’s own Son. And what was the cause of this unfruitfulness? The lack of faith, the very quality Jesus was using the occasion to highlight. (Romans 9:31, 32) By causing the fig tree to wither, Jesus was graphically demonstrating what the end result would be for that fruitless, faithless nation.
So not only do the horticultural facts justify Jesus’ actions in cursing the fig tree, but the context reveals that Jesus was thereby teaching a twofold lesson on faith. While the absence of faith can make us fruitless and will only lead to our rejection by God, our possessing an active faith will enable us to ‘move mountains,’ as Jehovah will surely answer our prayers.—Matthew 17:20.