A prophet acting out a parable: Why did Jesus choose to curse a fig tree?

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RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

What is the significance of Jesus cursing the fig tree?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Our discussion will focus on the Gospel of Mark (11:12-14 and 20-26) rather than the briefer parallel version in Matthew (21:18-22), which most experts think was written down later. Mark records the following:

Jesus was traveling with his disciples to Jerusalem, where he was to “cleanse” the temple by driving out devious money-changers and sellers of birds for sacrifice. He was hungry and spotted a fig tree. Seen from the distance, it showed leaves, but close up there was no fruit. Jesus declared that no-one would ever again eat fruit from this tree. Returning from the temple the next day the disciples saw that the tree had withered down to its roots. (Matthew puts the “cursing” after the “cleansing” and says the tree withered immediately.)

Scholarly British Bishop N.T. Wright says this narrative “looks most peculiar,” and it’s “one of the most difficult in the Gospels” in the view of D.E. Nineham at the University of London. That’s because, as Hugh Anderson of the University of Edinburgh observed, the cursing of the fig tree was Jesus’ only reported miracle of “destruction” rather than restoration, so at first glance it seems “out of character” if not “irrational.”

Interpreters see significance in Mark’s literary “sandwich” with the temple assault enclosed within two halves of the fig tree account. It’s important to realize that the fig tree is a symbol for the Israelite nation in many Old Testament passages, an apt poetic device due to this fruit’s importance for the regional diet.

Jesus was not angry over his hunger, and certainly not angry at a tree.

Rather, scholars tell us, he was filling the role of a Jewish prophet like many before him. Thus, he was proclaiming judgment against the Jewish leadership and anticipating the destruction of the temple and all of Jerusalem, which in fact Roman troops were to carry out in A.D. 70. Jesus was also warning his followers then, and ever since, against appearing religious on the surface while in reality bearing no spiritual fruit.

Therefore, the cursing of the tree was what’s called an acted-out parable, which Jesus (and Mark and Matthew) linked with the religiously symbolic center of the people and their leadership.

Jesus himself offered another explanation alongside the implicit prophecy against spiritual barrenness. In the wake of the miraculous withering Jesus urged his followers to be bold and expect other miracles as they offered prayer requests to God -- presumably not for destruction much less material rewards but for good and spiritual things.

He also told those who offer prayers to first be spiritual cleansed by forgiving anyone they have a grudge against, just as their heavenly Father forgives their own sins. This same admonition is familiar from the “Lord’s Prayer” (see Matthew 6:12 and Luke 11:4).

This brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in  Luke (13:6-9), which commentators tell us conveys the same message about spiritual emptiness.

The Nazarene  taught the tale of the owner of a fig tree that had provided no fruit for three years so he tells his gardener to cut it down because it’s worthless. The gardener instead proposes taking special care of the tree for one more year, and if it still provides no fruit then he’ll get rid of it.

The morals of the story:

Continue reading "Why did Jesus curse a fig tree?", by Richard Ostling.

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