Summary: if you have a real relationship with God, you will have faith in his power and love for his people.
Jesus’ first full day in Jerusalem has not started off on a pleasant note. He began the morning by cursing a fig tree and ended it by knocking over tables and accusing the Jewish authorities of turning the temple into “a den of robbers.” This got the attention of the crowds, but it did not put him into favor with religious leaders who have begun plans to have him killed.
But far from having to worry about Jesus, he proves himself quite capable of handling whatever may come his way. He proves the power of faith.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
The first issue for us to address is the matter of why Jesus would curse this poor fig tree. That is not the concern of the text. Jesus doesn’t indicate any concern. He doesn’t respond to Peter’s remark, “Oh my goodness! I didn’t mean to really kill the tree. I better watch what I say next time.”
For that matter, Peter is expressing amazement at the tree’s withering rather than concern about the tree. Matthew makes clear that is the issue, as well as Jesus’ response. And evidently, Mark is not concerned about the matter either.
But it bothers us. Why? Because it seems unfair to make an innocent tree bear the brunt of a curse for doing something it could not do. Let’s read again the incident.
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
Apparently none of the disciples were farmers, for surely someone would have objected! “Jesus, wait a minute. This is a perfectly good fig tree. It is not the season for figs. You shouldn’t curse a tree for acting like a tree.”
So why does Jesus deal so harshly with the tree. I don’t know. I do and I don’t. I know the lesson to learn, but I don’t know the full circumstances or the inner workings of Jesus’ mind. We have no indication that anybody in the story is bothered by the fig tree’s demise. If Jesus was acting in anger, no one seems terrified or discomforted. No one questions the ethics. Apparently we need to accept the fact that this is one of those cases where we had to be there to understand.
I’m comfortable with that. There was a time when I would not have been. I would have thought that I must be able to explain Jesus. It has been a great relief to finally accept that explaining Jesus, i.e. in the sense of analyzing his hidden thoughts and emotions, is the one thing I must not do. How can sinner such as I get into the mind of the Son of God, much less through a document written 2,000 years earlier which merely records what the author wants to teach us? Let’s just accept this as one of those instances in which Jesus reminds us that he is not “safe.”
So what was Jesus accomplishing through his curse and what lesson does Mark want us to learn? I gave the answer last Sunday. Jesus is acting out a parable. Just like a prophet from the Old Testament, he gives an object lesson to convey his message. What’s the message? Think about it. After cursing the tree what did Jesus do next? He attacked the market system of the temple and pronounced the harsh indictment that the temple had been turned into a “den of robbers.” That’s the kind of prophetic action that would have made the prophets Jeremiah and Amos proud! The tree and the temple incidents are about the judgment that is coming against God’s people because they have not born the fruit expected of them. Israel has not born the fruit of being a holy nation that draws the other nations into the worship of God. She has not only failed; she has rebelled against her calling. Was Jesus’ verdict correct? The next morning’s result indicated that it was. Four decades later the judgment would be fulfilled – the destruction of the temple and dispersion of Israel as a nation. The curse of the tree was the act of Jesus has a prophet pronouncing the judgment of God that was and did come upon Israel.
Did the disciples get the message? I don’t know. They are pretty impressed with the actual withering that occurred. You have to wonder about that. It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus perform miracles before. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of the incident. Yesterday, Jesus pronounced the curse then walked on; they probably didn’t think anymore about it. Then the next day – “Hey, look at that! How did that happen?” Jesus then takes the opportunity to teach about faith. Let’s see then, what he has to say.