Voices of Faith offers perspectives from religion columnists. This week’s question: What explains Jesus’ impatience with the fig tree?
A parable on leadership
The Rev. Joe Nassal, priest at Precious Blood Center in Liberty, Mo.: The context provides a clue. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to complete his mission.
The cross looms large. He is hungry and sees a fig tree in the distance that is “covered with foliage.” Though he probably realizes it is not the season for figs, he also knows his time has arrived.
So he is upset that the tree gives him false hope that it would have some fruit, and he takes out his frustration on the fig tree.
While this explanation might satisfy those of us who have felt the tension of having to make an important decision, or who have known frustration and experienced our patience wearing thin, others might be uncomfortable with Jesus showing such primal emotions.
So scholars suggest that the fig tree serves as a parable. Jesus has inspected the temple and does not like what he sees. When he leaves Bethany early the next morning before breakfast, he is hungry. Hoping for a fig before he returns to the temple, he finds no fruit even though the tree is full of leaves.
He curses the tree and then proceeds to really show his anger by clearing the temple of the moneychangers.
The fig tree symbolizes the religious leadership that had turned the temple, a house of prayer, into a marketplace. Jesus sees the religious leaders of his day like the fig tree: full of leaves but bearing no fruit.
A parable on Israel
The Rev. Eugene A. Curry, pastor of Park Hill Baptist Church: The incident with the fig tree troubles many people when they first encounter it. Stripped of context, it can make Jesus seem petty and impulsive.
But Jesus wasn’t just being an unreasonable jerk to a plant. Instead, he was making a point.
The Israelites believed they had a special relationship with God. And in the Hebrew Bible, this idea was commonly presented through agricultural metaphors: God was a farmer, and Israel was his much-beloved plant that he tended. Sometimes Israel was described as a grapevine, sometimes as a fig tree (Hosea 9:10).
Well, like any farmer, farmer-God hoped that the fig tree that was Israel would produce good fruit, things like justice and faithfulness.
But time and again, the prophets warned their countrymen that Israel wasn’t being particularly fruitful in the virtues that God expected of them. And Jesus took up this motif of prophetic warnings in his own ministry.
So, in the Gospel of Mark, we’re given a little sandwich of stories in Chapter 11.
Jesus approaches the fig tree, sees that it has produced no fruit, and curses it. Then, right after that, he marches into the temple and condemns the rank commercialism he finds there.
Again, Jesus finds no fruit, this time on the metaphorical fig tree that was Israel.
With that done, Jesus and his entourage leave the temple, and Peter notices that the literal fig tree has withered, just as Jesus said. The moral of the stories is that Israel needed to finally shape up, that continued fruitlessness would not be tolerated much longer.
Tragically, Israel didn’t heed this warning, and terrible consequences followed. The temple was destroyed. The nation was scattered. The figurative fig tree withered.
Now it’s on us. We’re called to produce the “fruits of the Spirit,” things like love, goodness and self-control. Will we now heed God’s call? Or will we be just another bunch of fig trees that refuse to produce fruit?