THE FRUITLESS FIG-TREE
Mk. 11:12-14; Mk. 11:20-21
When, on the next day, they were coming out from Bethany, Jesus was hungry. From a distance he saw a fig-tree in leaf, and he went to it to see if he would find anything on it. When he came to it he found nothing except leaves, for it was not yet the season of figs. He said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you for ever.” And the disciples heard him say it…. When they were going along the road early in the morning, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered what Jesus had said the day before and said, “Teacher! Look! The fig-tree which you cursed has withered away!”
Although the story of the fig-tree is in Mark’s gospel divided into two we take it as one. The first part of the story happened on the morning of one day, and the second part on the morning of the next day, and, chronologically, the cleansing of the Temple came in between. But, when we are trying to see the meaning of the story, we are better to take it as one.
There can be no doubt that this, without exception, is the most difficult story in the gospel narrative. To take it as literal history presents difficulties which are well-nigh insuperable.
(i) The story does not ring true. To be frank, the whole incident does not seem worthy of Jesus. There seems a certain petulance in it. it is just the kind of story that is told of other wonder-workers but never of Jesus. Further, we have this basic difficulty. Jesus had always refused to use his miraculous powers for his own sake. He would not turn the stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. He would not use his miraculous powers to escape from his enemies. He never used his power for his own sake. And yet here he uses his power to blast a tree which had disappointed him when he was hungry.
(ii) Worse, the whole action was unreasonable. This was the Passover Season, that is, the middle of April. The fig-tree in a sheltered spot may bear leaves as early as March, but never did a fig-tree bear figs until late May or June. Mark says that it was not the season for figs. Why blast the tree for failing to do what it was not possible for it to do? It was both unreasonable and unjust. Some commentators, to save the situation, say that what Jesus was looking for was green figs, half-ripe figs in their early stages, but such unripe fruit was unpleasant and was never eaten.
The whole story does not seem to fit Jesus at all. What are we to say about it?
If we are to take this as the story of something which actually happened, we must take it as an enacted parable. We must in fact take it as one of those prophetic, symbolic, dramatic actions. If we take it that way, it may be interpreted as the condemnation of two things.
(i) It is the condemnation of promise without fulfillment. The leaves on the tree might be taken as the promise of fruit, but there was no fruit there. It is the condemnation especially of the people of Israel. All their history was a preparation for the coming of God’s Chosen One. The whole promise of their national record was that when the Chosen One came they would be eager to receive him. But when he did come, that promise was tragically unfulfilled.
Charles Lamb tells of a certain man called Samuel le Grice. In his life there were three stages. When he was young, people said of him, “He will do something.” As he grew older and did nothing, they said of him, “He could do something if he tried.” Towards the end they said of him, “He might have done something if he had tried.” His life was the tale of a promise that was never fulfilled. If this incident is an enacted parable it is the condemnation of unfulfilled promise.
(ii) It is the condemnation of profession without practice. It might be taken that the tree with its leaves professed to offer something and did not. The whole cry of the New Testament is that a man can be known only by the fruits of his life. “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matt.7:16.) “Bear fruits that befit repentance.” (Lk.3:8.) It is not the man who piously says, “Lord, Lord,” who will enter into the Kingdom but the man who does God’s will. (Matt.7:21.) Unless a man’s religion makes him a better and more useful man, makes his home happier, makes life better and easier for those with whom he is brought into contact, it is not religion at all. No man can claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ and remain entirely unlike the Master whom he professes to love.
If this incident is to be taken literally and is an enacted parable, that must be the meaning. But, relevant as these lessons may be, it seems difficult to extract them from the incident, because it was quite unreasonable to expect the fig-tree to bear figs when the time for figs was still six weeks away.
What then are we to say? Luke does not relate this incident at all, but he has the parable of the fruitless fig-tree (Lk.13:6-9). Now that parable ends indecisively. The master of the vineyard wished to root up the tree. The gardener pled for .another chance. The last chance was given; and it was agreed that if the tree bore fruit it should be spared, and if not it should be destroyed. May it not be that this incident is a kind of continuation of that parable? The people of Israel had had their chance. They had failed to bear fruit. And now was the time for their destruction. It has been suggested–and it is quite possible–that on the road from Bethany to Jerusalem there was a lonely blasted fig-tree. It may well be that Jesus said to his disciples, “You remember the parable I told you about the fruitless fig-tree? Israel is still fruitless and will be blasted as that tree.” It may well be that that lonely tree became associated in men’s minds with a saying of Jesus about the fate of fruitlessness, and so the story arose.
Let the reader take it as he will. To us there seem insuperable difficulties in taking it literally. It seems to us to be in some way connected with the parable of the fruitless tree. But in any event the whole lesson of the incident is that uselessness invites disaster.
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