Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Would Jesus Curse an Out-Of-Season Fig Tree?

What follows is an e-mail I sent in answer to a question from someone at a church I preached at this past week. I'm posting it for the benefit of anyone else who may have similar questions.

Thanks for asking me the question you did today about Mark 11:13, and especially your question about why Jesus would curse a fig tree that wasn’t producing figs if it wasn’t even the season for figs. As soon as I got home I looked into your question (a very good question) and I want to give you some information that I was able to find.

Specifically I am going to share with you a some insights from R.T. France's commentary on Mark, which I found very helpful. France points out that according to some horticultural expert, although it wasn’t the season for figs, Jesus would have still found little tiny green figs called paggim. “It may be then that these were what Jesus was hoping for, especially if the tree had…a particularly well-developed show of leaves” (France, 440). However, France says he is unable to evaluate these claims since he isn’t a plant expert. In reality France actually believes that Jesus’ demand of the fig tree is unreasonable, but like with other parables the reasonableness of every detail of the act isn’t what’s important but rather, the symbolic meaning of the act. Here’s what France says:
Mark has significantly focused the problem by the comment, "for it was not the season for figs.” …Without this clause, if Jesus might reasonably have expected to find ripe figs and was disappointed, his actions, even if still unusual, might seem more justified…For Mark, Jesus’ frustration was horticulturally unreasonable. He tells the story not because it offers a model for reasonable [plant care] but because of its symbolic value. A tree in full leaf at Passover season is making a promise it cannot fulfill; so, too, is Israel. And just as Micah, speaking for God, described his disappointed search (equally unreasonably at the other end of the growing season) for the ‘first-ripe fig for which I hunger’ (Mi. 7:1), so Jesus on his initial visit to the temple has found all leaves, but no fruit. His summary verdict on the ‘braggart’ fig tree is a verdict on the failure of God’s people and is of a piece with his developing polemic against the ‘barren’ temple.
France pointed to Micah 7:1, and it appears that in that passage God is also seeking figs at a time when they aren’t in season. Here’s the passage:
Woe is me! For I have become
as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
no first-ripe fig that my soul desires. 
It seems like Mark has mentioned that the figs are out of season perhaps even specifically to parallel God’s condemnation of Israel in Micah 7:1 with what Jesus is doing. In the Micah passage God can scarcely find any righteous men in the land; this clearly is true in Jesus’ own time as well. I actually think that drawing a connection between Jesus and Micah 7:1 makes Jesus' actions make more sense. He acts in a way that draws a parallel between his own judgment in the Temple and God’s judgment on Jerusalem. The point becomes less about the expectations we have for our plants and more about the fact that Jesus is judging Israel (remember that the fig tree episodes of 11:12-14; 11:20-26 bookend Jesus’ visit to the unfruitful temple in 11:15-19) as God judged Israel in the time of Micah.

So there are a couple of possible approaches.

1) Jesus may be making a reasonable request of the plant,
2) or he may not.

Both are textually and horticulturally plausible, depending on which fig expert you ask about it. I’m actually fine with both. With the unreasonable request, it would seem to reflect more clearly that Jesus intends to copy God’s judgment in Micah 7:1, where God can’t find a “first-ripe fig," but I’m sympathetic with those who say that Jesus would still have expected to find something on the vine indicating fruitfulness.

I’m curious whether this satisfies some of your own curiosity. If not, feel free to let me know. I can keep digging!

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