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Jesus Curses the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14)

Analysis and Commentary

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Stained glass windows of Johanneskirche, Fig tree cursed.
James Steakley/Wikimedia Commons
    12 And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: 13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. 14 And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it.

Jesus, Curses, and Israel

One of the more infamous passages in the gospels involves Jesus’ cursing of a fig tree for not having any fruit for him despite the fact that it wasn’t even the season for fruit. What sort of petulant individual would deliver a gratuitous, arbitrary curse? Why would this be Jesus’ only miracle in the environs of Jerusalem? In reality the incident is meant as a metaphor for something larger — and worse.

Mark isn’t trying to tell his audience that Jesus was angered at not having figs to eat — this would be very strange, given that he would have known that it was far too early in the year for that. Instead, Jesus is making a larger point about Jewish religious traditions. Specifically: it was not the time for Jewish leaders to “bear fruit,” and therefore they would be cursed by God never to bear any fruit ever again.

Thus, instead of merely cursing and killing a lowly fig tree, Jesus is saying that Judaism itself is cursed and will die off — “dry up at the roots,” as a later passage explains when the disciples see the tree the next day (in Matthew, the tree dies immediately).

There are two things to take note of here. The first is that this incident is an example of the common Marcan theme of apocalyptic determinism. Israel is to be cursed because it “bears no fruit” by not welcoming the Messiah — but clearly the tree here isn’t being given the choice to bear fruit or not.

The tree bears no fruit because it is not the season and Israel does not welcome the Messiah because that would contradict God’s plans. There can be no apocalyptic battle between good and evil if the Jews welcome Jesus. Therefore, they must reject him so that the message can more readily spread to the Gentiles. Israel is cursed by God not because of something they willfully chose, but because it’s necessary for the apocalyptic story to play out.

The second thing to note here is that incidents like this in the gospels were part of what helped fuel Christian antisemitism. Why should Christians harbor warm feelings towards Jews when they and their religion have been cursed for not bearing fruit? Why should Jews be treated well when God has determined that they should reject the Messiah?

The larger meaning of this passage is revealed more fully by Mark in the following tale of the cleansing of the Temple...

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