A Fig Tree without Figs

No, not mine; my fig tree continues to thrive.  I’m already contemplating what to do with the growing figs–all four of them–when they are ripe:  Will I eat them raw, or will I grill them?  And when will they be ripe enough to eat?  I squeeze them every few days to check (probably not a good idea).

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(This is a photo of my fig tree taken today.)

As I watch the figs on my fig tree grow bigger with each passing day, I’m reminded of another fig tree in the Bible: the one that Jesus encountered on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem during what has come to be called  ‘Passion Week’. The encounter is described in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels (Mt  21:18-19, 20-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-25).  The encounter went like this:  As Jesus was returning to Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany, he became hungry.  Spotting a lone fig tree by the side of the road, he went over to it to get some figs to eat, but he found no fruit on the tree, only leaves.

Until I had a fig tree growing in my own backyard, I had no idea just how unusual that would be.  As I observed my own tree after the period of winter dormancy had ended, I noticed little green swellings–immature figs; leaves made their appearance after.  This growth pattern would be true of the fig trees that grew in Judaea as well.

Fig1

(This is what my fig tree looked like back in April.  Jesus’ encounter with the barren fig tree occurred just prior to the Passover in the Hebrew month of Nisan (our March/April).

If there were leaves on the fig tree encountered by Jesus, there should have been evidence of fruit.  Finding no fruit, Jesus said to the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mk 11:14). In Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered immediately (21:19).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples observe the withered tree the next morning as they head back into Jerusalem (11:20). At first glance, Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree seems like a gross over-reaction.  After all, as Mark notes, Jesus found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs (11:13).  The first crop of figs does not ripen until June.

To make sense of Jesus’ harsh reaction, Bible scholars suggest that we think of it as a prophetic gesture, or sign-action.  Hebrew prophets not infrequently dramatized their messages in order to get their points across. Often their actions took bizarre forms.  Consider Jeremiah, for example, who was directed by the Lord to buy an earthenware jar, then take some of the elders and some of the senior priests, and together go out to the valley of Ben-hinnon.  There, Jeremiah was to break the jar in front of them to illustrate how God was going to break the people and the city of Jerusalem in judgment (Jer 19:1-15).

Jesus’ prophetic gesture was directed at a fig tree in the company of his disciples.  Why a fig tree?  The answer lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Micah where Israel is not infrequently pictured as a fig tree.  In the book of Hosea, God says:  “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; / I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season” (9:10).  In Joel, God calls Israel “my fig tree” (1:7).

History confirms that Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree was indeed a prophetic sign-action.  In AD 70, thirty-seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion (believed to have taken place in AD 33), Roman armies penetrated Jerusalem’s walls, destroying the Temple and razing the city. Not one stone of the magnificent Temple was left standing on another, just as Jesus had predicted (Mk 13:2). Sixty-five years later,  in AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem.  Jews were forbidden access to the new city built now according to Hellenistic plans.  Where the Jewish Temple once stood, Hadrian had a temple erected to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.  And, in order to erase all Jewish connection to the land, Hadrian renamed what was once the Roman province of Judea as Syria Palaestina.  The fig tree had indeed withered to its very roots!

That Jesus’ ‘cursing’ of the fig tree was a predictive act is clear.  That said, it was obviously an indictment of Israel’s spiritual barrenness as well.  Not only had Israel’s religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they had become his fiercest opponents.  There was an outward display of religiosity–like the showy leaves on the fig tree–but no faith.  That would be true of many churches today as well.

As I read the story of the withered fig tree, I can’t help but think how differently I must view it compared to someone reading it in, say, 1017 or 1517 or 1917.  Unlike earlier generations of Bible-readers, I am part of that generation which has witnessed the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland; the creation of the modern state of Israel; and the re-taking of Jerusalem.  To me, these events say that the story of God’s ‘fig tree’, Israel, is still unfolding.