On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Mark 11:12-14, 20-22 ESV
Earlier, we explored the story of Jesus cleansing the temple during the “passion week.” An interesting story story takes place before and after that account. It takes place on the mountain ridge road overseeing the Kidron Valley, which Jesus walked many times that last week as He entered Jerusalem during the day but stayed on mountain at night. In addition to the Mount of Olives, this ridge was also home to two villages. Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Bethphage was very close to Bethany. Interestingly, both of these villages mean “house of figs.” Bethany refers to figs that are ready to eat. Bethphage refers to figs that are not yet ripe.
As Jesus was walking from Bethany into Jerusalem on the Monday after “Palm Sunday,” He became hungry and noticed a fig tree. He saw that it had leaves, but found no fruit. Even though Mark explains, “it was not the season for figs,” Jesus curses the tree by saying, “May no one ever eat from you again.”
On the next day, Jesus and His disciples again passed by that tree. The disciples noticed that the tree was “withered away to its roots.” Did Jesus unfairly judge the tree? Did He in anger kill the tree because He was hungry?
This story makes sense when we understand that fig trees in this part of the world begin to have early, somewhat smaller figs that would grow from the previous year’s sprouts each spring. These early figs and leaves would fall off, giving way to another set of leaves and figs, which would come in abundance (usually after August) and would then be harvested. The smaller figs were not much good for harvest, but were sometimes used to give the poor some sustenance as they traveled. This tree had its spring leaves suggesting it had these early figs, but was fruitless. Jesus cursed the tree for its hypocrisy. It looked like it was fruitful, but was not.
The fig tree in the Scriptures was often a symbol for Israel. During Jesus’ day the Jewish people claimed to be living for God, but in fact were living lives of hypocrisy. Their lives bore no spiritual fruit, even though they “looked good” on the outside. Luke tells us that at this same time, Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem, mourning their lack of spiritual life and prophesying about their upcoming destruction.
I pray that my own life is not all leaves but no fruit! May we not be hypocrites, but bear fruit for God’s glory.