Jesus’ Withering Judgement
Mark 11 : 12 - 14 and 20 - 25 (Luke 13 : 6 -9)
The story of Jesus cursing a simple fig tree is at odds with the overwhelmingly positive character portrait of Him that we see in the Gospels. Why is this exception included? What does it mean? Why did Jesus act this way? Scholar have few clear answers. If it actually happened it presents a critical, judgemental, negative and condemnatory side to Jesus with which we are generally unfamiliar. If it didn’t actually happen - why does Mark include it? We can assume that this incident did happen. There would be no purpose in inventing it. It is not positive and it is not flattering of Jesus. What actually happened? Jesus and His disciples were drawing close to Jerusalem. They had left Bethany. That is where Lazarus lived and where Mary anointed Jesus with expensive perfumed burial ointment - before he was deid. Bethany was 1.5 miles from Jerusalem. Jesus had not had his breakfast. He saw a fig-tree by the side of the road and He went to see if it had any fruit He could eat. The problem was that this was about mid-April. Fig trees did not always produce fruit at that time, so early in the season. There were three types of figs, late or autumn figs which constituted the main harvest in August and thereafter, figs which did not ripen by autumn and remained for the winter - they were small and often blown away by winds and lastly some which survived even longer as late as June before being worth picking. Jesus expected this fig tree to bear fruit at this time. Why was He so angry with it for not doing so?
Was this His Basil Fawlty moment? Do you remember one of the most manic incidents in the TV Series Fawlty Towers? Basil’s chef had got drunk and could not cook the food for a gourmet meal night at the hotel. He arranged with a chef in Torquay to that he would pick up roast duck and he went to get it in his Austin 1100 which then broke down. In utter frustration, he pulled out a sapling from a garden and started to hit the Austin 1100 with it, swearing at it. Basil ‘lost it’ as the current saying goes. Did Jesus ‘lose it’?
Jesus said, “May no-one eat fruit from you again”. Mark adds that this was clearly audible. The next day they passed by the same spot. The disciples noticed that the fig tree had died. Peter said, Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered. It had withered from the root. No further explanation is offered in the text. In Luke’s account of something similar, Jesus tells a story about a man who owned a fig tree which was planted in his vineyard. One day he went to look for some figs but there were none. He spoke to his vineyard manager and complained that this particular fig tree had not borne any fruit for three years and he ordered him to cut it down. Why should it use up the soil? he asked - after all - it was draining precious moisture to no purpose and depriving the vines of that water. But the manager suggested persevering with it for another year. I’ll dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down. In Mark’s Gospel, there is no second chance. Jesus’ judgement is instant and irrevocable.
The fig tree had a great history in Judaism. Fig trees were common enough because they could flourish even in the stony soil of the middle east. Thy could grow to about 35 feet. Fig trees along with grape vines and olives were symbols of God’s providence and His people’s prosperity. When the prophets such as Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel and others warned the people of invasion, they made it real by describing the destruction and loss of their fig trees, olive trees and vines. The prophets were sometimes saying that this was the actual judgement of God on the nation for its sins. There was a saying - to sit down under your fig tree - and that meant to be at peace and prosperous. Fig trees grew slowly and needed care and attention but they were national symbols of God’s favour. In the story of Adam and Eve, fig leaves are used to make basic clothing. Today, fig leaves are used to protect fruit in transportation for markets. And dried figs are used today as portable food and as gifts.
So - is this the clue then? The fig tree was the emblem of Judaism - the emblem of the Jewish People - the symbol that said ‘All is well’. From Jesus’ point of view - all was not well. Firstly, the Jewish people had not borne the good moral and spiritual fruit over the centuries that they had been called for and expected to do. We think that our society is pretty bad - and indeed it is - but we should not think that the society Jesus lived in was somehow that much better or even better at all. It was a violent society, it was a politically corrupt society, it was a morally dubious society, it was a financially dishonest society. Added to these were the facts that it was an arbitrarily governed society and it was subject to foreign domination. It cannot have been a pleasant place for many of its people. This partly explains why both John the Baptist and Jesus had such spectacular followings and why, when each faded from prominence and so from the hopes of the people, they suffered the extreme penalty, one beheaded, the other crucified.
Our Christianity is often a bit airy fairy. We are many years distant from the times of the New Testament. We have just celebrated another schmaltzy Christmas. We ourselves live in soft times. Our annoyances are rather trivial, a brief power cut or a late bus or something out of stock at the supermarket. We complain about the weather of course and the state of the world.
Jesus lived a very real life on the edge of survival as a public figure - most dangerously showing clear evidence of God’s power in His life and ministry. This incident of the withering of the fig tree is just a reminder that he was no pussy cat. What is the difference between this condemnation and his words to Peter “Get behind me Satan”. When Jesus stood above Jerusalem and wept over it he said, 'The days will come upon when your enemies…will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you'. We know that this prophecy was fulfilled. In 70 AD The Romans flattened Jerusalem and brought in teams of ploughs to turn its soil over.
The cursing of the fig tree then is a symbolic act - a dramatic prophecy of the end of Judaism as the favoured and called servant witness people of God. The fig tree withered and died. Jesus Himself was put to death and rose in resurrection. Out of such horror and violence, Christianity was born and continues to this day. Jerusalem was actually historically destroyed and the Jews were scattered abroad. The cursing of a fig tree does not seem quite so harsh in context. But it was perhaps a unique example of the negative use of divine power.
Jesus consoled and encouraged Peter and the disciples with advice on prayer and positive outcome. They were to trust their lives to God’s love, purpose and providence. Such destruction need not come to them if they would hold fast their faith. Out of the ashes new birth would come through devotion to God on their part. In the Judaism of the time, a good Rabbinic teacher who could explain things simply was called a mountain remover. Prayer can negotiate any difficulty and provide a way forward and a solution in time. Prayer is our request that our Maker’s love be demonstrated in particular need. It is answered prayer that brings the results.
Our prayers tend to be rather feeble. Our expectations are often low. But we are encouraged to be more positive and expect God to help us at all times. Our prayers are not to be flippant or nominal but heart felt. Then they will be effective. We cannot force ourselves into a trance or behave like dervishes. Our prayers can be humble and rational but they must be strong. We have a right to expect our God to pull through for us - a right not our own - but won for us in Jesus Christ. And a key to our prayers being answered is the attitude of our hearts to others. For if we pray with enmity or anger or self-justification or indeed in a selfish and self-centred manner, then we cannot expect much. We are liberated by forgiving others and our prayers can be the more easily answered.
Judaism in Jesus’ time had become introverted and it had lost its spiritual power as a result. It was concerned with survival only and even that failed. The Church of Jesus can easily become introverted too - just concerned with survival. And it will wither as a result. Our congregation can become concerned only with survival and that introverted attitude will ensure its fate. We have a message to proclaim, we have a lifestyle to follow, we have a hope to inspire and we have a vision to share. The more we do so the better the future will be. The fig tree story reminds us that it is not always comfortable to be a good Christian and that if we stay within our comfort zone we may fail in the Christian life. We must put our faith to immediate good use, we are to produce good fruit of the Spirit in our own lives and in making some contribution to the lives of others.
If you are the fig tree - today - can Jesus find some fruit in you?