“Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves he went to see if perhaps he would find something on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, ‘Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.’ And his disciples heard it” (Mark 11:12-14 NKJV).
When I arrived in Bangladesh in early March, the fruit trees on the campus were in bloom and beginning to set fruit. Unfortunately, when it was time to leave a couple of months later the fruit was hanging heavily, but not yet ripe enough to eat. To say it was frustrating to watch mangoes, jackfruit, and other tropical fruits which I don’t get much opportunity for at home (at least not tree-ripened and fresh) get that close to edible but still not available to me is rather an understatement.
Most of us can understand the Lord’s disappointment at a potential fresh fig lunch failing to materialize. From a distance, the tree looked promising. When he got close, however, there was nothing on it to eat. No wonder he cursed the tree so that it withered and died.
But was it the tree’s fault? Mark actually says it was not the season for figs. That is a rather puzzling statement — if no figs could be expected why did Jesus go to the tree in hope? Why did he curse the tree so that it died? His reaction may seem to some moderns to have been excessive and inappropriate.
Several factors may have been involved to cause Jesus to do what he did. Some suggest that he was simply teaching his disciples a lesson concerning faith and his own divine power. Others think the tree may have been exhibiting a false promise, with leaf development more like that of the time when figs were normally ripe. It was in rebuke of that false signal that Jesus punished the tree, they suggest.
These or other factors may have influenced the Lord’s actions. None of the gospels give any reason for them, however. We are left to apply this story as best we can. One moral that is evident is that fruitfulness is always better than barrenness.
There may have been good reasons for the tree to lack figs, but the fact remained that when Jesus approached it, there was nothing there for him. Often we find ourselves unproductive in our spiritual walk. We do few good works. We seem spiritually weak and are not growing satisfactorily. Even our worship may at times seem routine, ritualistic, and not overly sincere.
We may feel that there are good reasons for our lack of fruit. Perhaps there has been sickness, either of ourselves or of loved ones, that has hampered us. Maybe there are economic problems that have us distracted. It simply does not seem to be the season for figs (I.e., spiritual fruit). We hope God will overlook our failings and that a better season will come soon.
The story of Jesus and the fig tree reminds us that God is demanding of his people. He expects us to use that which he has entrusted to us wisely and well, as is taught in the parable of Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The “one talent servant” who failed to use the resources he was given was judged “wicked and lazy” and was cast into outer darkness, bereft of the money he had neglected.
Like the fig tree with which Jesus was disappointed, that servant failed to reach his potential and was judged accordingly. We are accountable to God for what we have and for what we can do. Let us be diligent in our service.