That Poor Old Fig Tree

Back in January, I wrote a post about Jesus and fig trees. One of you, namely Michelle Wood, made this comment:

[W]hen I saw the title I thought you were going to go into the one Jesus cursed (a very odd little story).

Michelle is right. The story of the cursed fig tree is very odd. And it used to confound me greatly. So let’s take a look at it, shall we?

Shortly after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for His last Passover visit, He stumbled across a fig tree. And… wait. I’ll let Mark tell the story:

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing 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. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

This seems really weird to me. Jesus wants some figs, but it’s not the right season, so of course He’s not going to find any. But in spite of it being the wrong time of year, Jesus curses the tree anyway. That, in and of itself, would be strange enough. But what happens next borders on the bizarre:

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

Jesus then launches into a lesson about the importance of faith, the infamous “if you have faith you can move mountains” business. But let’s not overlook what happened here: not only did Jesus curse this poor fig tree, but the tree actually withers and dies at His word.

Fig TreeSo what are we to make of this? Why does Jesus kill this poor old fig tree?

Well, first of all, I think we need to be careful when telling this story. It’s easy to anthropomorphize this tree and treat it like it’s a sentient being with thoughts and dreams and ambitions and mortgages. You know, a life cut down in its prime in a tragic misunderstanding. It’s a tree, for crying out loud.

But even with that said, this is an odd story. Why does Jesus curse out a tree for not having fruit when it shouldn’t have?

The answer, I think, lies in the story that’s sandwiched between the cursing and the withering. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus curses the fig tree on His way into the Temple, where He’s going to conduct a little spring cleaning. The incident with the fig tree is a graphic object lesson that relates to why Jesus has to clean out the Temple: where God should have found good fruit, He found only leaves.

This isn’t the only case where we see this sort of metaphor at work. The prophet Micah used this imagery as well:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
    after the summer fruit has been gathered,
    after the vintage has been gleaned,
finds no cluster to eat;
    there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.
The faithful have disappeared from the land,
    and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
    the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
    thus they pervert justice.
The best of them is like a brier,
    the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of their sentinels, of their punishment, has come;
    now their confusion is at hand.
Put no trust in a friend,
    have no confidence in a loved one;
guard the doors of your mouth
    from her who lies in your embrace;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
    the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    your enemies are members of your own household. (emphasis mine)

God comes to His people in the time of Micah the prophet and He didn’t find the righteous fruit He expects, so their tree withered. Jesus came to the fig tree hoping to find fruit and He found none, so the tree is cursed and withers. And Jesus is about to inspect the Temple itself for fruit. What do you suppose He expects to find? What do you suppose the fate of the Temple is going to be?

The story of the cursed fig tree is a sobering reminder that God still wants a harvest of righteous fruit from His people. St. Paul talks about this in Galatians:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

And that’s where we find good news. On our own, we may be withering, curse-deserving fig trees, but because Jesus died on the cross, we are forgiven. And He then pours out on us the Holy Spirit so that we may start to produce the kind of fruit that God wants.

May we all be fruitful trees in God’s orchard.



  1. Thanks for writing about this story: it’s still odd, but I appreciate the context better. Now, if you want to tackle the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 next….

    Also, for future reference, my last name doesn’t have an “S.” 🙂

  2. Cool. Thanks for providing some illumination on this odd story. That makes a lot more sense to me now.

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