Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple area.
He looked around at everything and, since it was already late,
went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
The next day as they were leaving Bethany he was hungry.
Seeing from a distance a fig tree in leaf,
he went over to see if he could find anything on it.
When he reached it he found nothing but leaves;
it was not the time for figs.
And he said to it in reply, “May no one ever eat of your fruit again!”
And his disciples heard it.
They came to Jerusalem,
and on entering the temple area
he began to drive out those selling and buying there.
He overturned the tables of the money changers
and the seats of those who were selling doves.
He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple area.
Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’?
But you have made it a den of thieves.”
The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it
and were seeking a way to put him to death,
yet they feared him
because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.
When evening came, they went out of the city.
Early in the morning, as they were walking along,
they saw the fig tree withered to its roots.
Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look!
The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Jesus said to them in reply, “Have faith in God.
Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain,
‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’
and does not doubt in his heart
but believes that what he says will happen,
it shall be done for him.
Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer,
believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.
When you stand to pray,
forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance,
so that your heavenly Father may in turn
forgive you your transgressions.”
This passage from Mark is a tricky one to understand. At first glance, it seems as though Jesus cursed the fig tree out of spite when it didn’t provide Him with food. Why not bless the tree with abundant fruit, just as He multiplied the loaves and fishes, instead of condemning it to wither and die? Mark even notes that figs were out of season at the time. Why would Jesus curse the tree, then, for not providing figs? It seems a rather extreme reaction.
But for the early Church, who were better acquainted with the fig trees of Israel, this story took on different meaning. When fig leaves would appear around the end of March, they were joined by small, edible buds, called taqsh, which fell off before the real fig was formed. Peasants would often eat the taqsh to assuage their hunger. But if no taqsh appeared, then there would be no figs on the tree that year at all.
So when Mark notes that “it was not the time for figs,” he is referring to this period when taqsh would typically grow. When Jesus looked to the fig tree to find sustenance, He saw a tree with leaves but no taqsh—meaning there would be no fruit to come, either. From a distance, it was flourishing with leaves, but up close, there was nothing of substance. Jesus recognized that, just like the fig tree, many people put on a good show of piety but had no signs or intentions of good fruits to follow. They were all outward appearance.
In the middle of this story we hear Mark’s account of Jesus rebuking the money changers in the temple. There is a parallel drawn between the fruitless fig tree and those who desecrated the house of the Lord: these men spent their days at the temple, but they had no interest in actually worshiping God. They, too, were all show with no signs of fruit.
The fig tree is a symbol used throughout Scripture to signify peace and prosperity for Israel. It requires patience and attention in order to grow and thrive, but it delivers rich rewards, bringing both a shady resting place and delicious fruit. The money changers sought shade without fruit, capitalizing on the community surrounding the temple while paying no regard to its sacred purpose. But for Jesus, their leaves could not conceal the barrenness of their hearts.
Jesus curses the fig tree as a reminder to us all that we do not know when our time for judgment will come. We may or may not have developed fruit when that time arrives, but He expects to see in us a desire for true growth and fruitful service. We cannot assume that we can wait until next year to pay attention to what God is asking of us. He doesn’t expect perfection but presence. Jesus does not judge us based on our achievements or accomplishments but on our openness to channel His life-giving grace in all its fullness, however He wishes to manifest His fruit in us.
1. James Tissot, The Accursed Fig Tree / PD-US
2. Hans Simon Holtzbecker, Ficus carica / PD-US