Mark 11 records that Yeshua, on his way to Jerusalem for His final Passover, cursed a barren fig tree by the side of the road. This episode from the Master’s life raises several questions.
First, Mark relates that “it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13). But if it was not the season for figs, why did the Master anticipate finding figs? At Passover, some species of fig trees might be putting forth early fruit, but such figs would only be in an early stage of development. People in Israel have been observed picking and eating unripe April figs. The Mishnah explicitly mentions eating unripe figs:
At what time … do they eat the fruit of trees? Regarding unripe figs, from the time they begin to glisten, they may eat them. (Mishnah)
Christian Hebraist John Lightfoot explains how one might plausibly find figs even when they are not in season. He cites produce and tithing laws from the Jerusalem Talmud that refer to certain types of fig trees retaining their figs through the winter. Some figs from the previous year’s crop might still cling to the branches. Yeshua might have hoped to find some branch-dried figs among the new leaves. Instead, He found the tree had been fruitless or that it had already been thoroughly harvested. Along the same lines, Messianic Jewish pioneer Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein suggests that Yeshua sought figs from the previous year’s harvest.
Was the fig tree someone’s private property? If it was, would the Master have felt free to help Himself to its fruit? The Torah allows the poor to glean remnants from the previous year’s harvest, and Yeshua certainly qualified as one of the poor. The story, however, does not indicate that the tree belonged to anyone. Instead, it grew by itself beside the road, apparently on public property.
Why did Yeshua curse the fig tree? One should not presume He was merely flaunting His miraculous powers. He never performed miracles for the sake of performing miracles. Yeshua was a prophet, not a magician.
Our Master used the fig tree to symbolize His generation. He had already taught His disciples a parable in which He compared the generation to an unproductive fig tree planted in a vineyard. The owner of the vineyard says, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?” (Luke 13:7). The vineyard-keeper asks for one more year: “Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9).
In biblical and rabbinic literature, the pairing of vine and fig tree symbolizes the peace and prosperity of the kingdom. When Solomon ruled over Israel, every man sat under his own vine and fig tree, and the prophets say that in the Messianic Age, everyone will again sit under his own vine and fig tree (e.g., 1 Kings 4:25; Zechariah 3:10). The vine creates shade and shelter from the heat and rain. The grapes provide wine. The fig tree provides food. Everyone will have everything they need.
In the parable of the fig tree, however, the fig tree planted in the vineyard did not produce fruit. Its failure to do so reverses the messianic expectation. The parable alludes to the prophetic warnings of John the Immerser: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8), and, “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
Yeshua used His parable of the fig tree to warn that the time for repentance was quickly drawing to a close. The owner of the vineyard and the fig tree represents God. He comes to the fig tree seeking the fruit of repentance. The miraculous withering of the fig tree should be understood in the same light. The fig tree represents the generation of the Master—the generation that had the potential to bring in the Messianic Era.