When one hears the story of Jesus and the fig tree in today’s gospel, it has to strike you as one of the strangest in the Gospels. It seems completely out of character for Jesus to curse anything much less a fig tree. When the text goes on to include the detail that “it was not the time for figs” (v. 13), Jesus appears even more unreasonable, and the incident becomes more difficult to understand – and so most people do the “holy nod” – Jesus said it so there must be something there – and move on.
But perhaps we can unpack the verses, at least a little. The fig tree was a common Old Testament image for Israel (e.g., Hos 9:10; Like grapes in the desert, I found Israel; Like the first fruits of the fig tree in its prime). It is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ cursing of the tree would symbolically stand for his anger with the Jewish people. But why does Mark’s Jesus curse Israel at this point of the Gospel drama – this scene immediately follows on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But remember the immediate context is Jesus driving the buyers and sellers from the sacred temple area – righteous, holy anger for his Father’s house: what was meant to be “a house of prayer for all peoples” into a “den of thieves” (v. 17, quoting Isa 56:7). Now it is more clear that these verses are connected: the fig-tree passage together with the cleansing of the temple. The withered fig tree (v. 21) symbolizes the fruitless side of Jewish temple piety in Jesus’ time.
And what about the fruits of our worship? In Jesus’ day there was an adherence to Temple ritual and sacrifice, yet the hearts and minds were far from true worship – a quid pro quo exchange. Are there some aspects of our worship that are the same. Mark hopes that there is a profound trust in God that can move mountains and adds hyperbole to make the point that by faith and prayer his people will be able to do what seems impossible, as well as receive whatever they ask for in prayer. (Remember other hyperbole in 10:25: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”)
Have a humble heart and mind when coming before God in prayer. Know that everything is a gift, even the fruits we think we have brought to harvest. Trust in that power of God, ask for your needs, and bear good fruit in the world.