Around the retelling of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple (a warning to those who seek to use the gospel solely for commercial gain) we have the interesting episode of the fig tree. Jesus comes to a fig tree, finds out it doesn’t have any figs (and it’s not yet time for the figs), curses it, and the tree withers up. What?
I don’t purport to have the only or best understanding of this passage, but a few things should be noted.
- It’s not about the fig tree. This was clearly a symbolic gesture, akin to the prophetic drama enacted by Ezekiel. The fig tree, both in its history and by the narrative being divided by an episode in Jerusalem, is clearly meant to be a reference to Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself continuing to have significance for the Christian well beyond the New Testament.
- Fig leaves were used after the first sin. In Genesis 3, after the man and the woman became aware of their nakedness, they used fig leaves to cover themselves.
- The leaves indicated something. Several commenters note that fig trees produce figs before they produce leaves. That is sometimes the case, but not necessarily so, especially if this is not the first season for the tree. That said, older fig trees do tend to have a lot of leaves and no fruit.
Again we don’t know entirely what is going on. The gospel writer makes a point of noting that Jesus looked for figs and didn’t find any because it wasn’t time for figs. Understanding this in the context of an allegory (of sorts) for Jerusalem, we might say that Jerusalem always looks promising, but never produces true sustenance. Perhaps, Jesus is declaring that the time of Jerusalem, with its Passover festivities every year, is over. It will never again produce fruit. This is the final Passover. Jesus is inaugurating a new fruit, one that is given once (and will be referenced in the upper room dinner) and not needed again.
The first fruit of the fig, in the garden, brought with it evil and sin. The next fruit needed to be revisited year after year and could only provide the inadequate covering as did the fig leaves for the man and the woman in the Garden. A greater sacrifice would need to be made. But unlike the first sacrifice, which would provide a more adequate covering, this new sacrifice would cause a fruit to grow within (the Fruit of the Spirit), forever satisfying, healing and nourishing a people. The tree is cursed so people stop running to the tree. There is a tree of life in a new Jerusalem that Christ is planting.