After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening. As he is approaching Jerusalem the next morning, he sees a fig tree and expects to find a bit of fruit to eat, but there is none. Jesus then pronounces a curse on the fig tree, telling it that it will no longer bear fruit.
What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree? This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that does not bear fruit. The context supplies the clue, Jesus enters the temple and condemns it as a den of thieves, setting up the conflict stories as he teaches in the temple.
The fig tree is barren, a frequent symbol in the Old Testament of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4, for example), or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Hos 9:15-16). The most likely allusion is to Isaiah 6. There, the prophet describes Judah as a tree that will be cut down, but a remnant will remain (Isa 6:13). Judah would fall, but a tiny remnant will remain. Jesus has already quoted Isa 6 to describe his teaching in parables, so it is not a surprise that he would enact a parable with this fig tree based on Isaiah 6.
Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit, but does not find it. In the same way, he came to the nation looking for fruit, but did not find any. The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off. Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple. Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign.
On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up. There are a number of Old Testament allusions here (Ho 9:16, Job 18:16, 28:9, 31:12, Ezek 19:9 ). The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah.
But is there a “righteous remnant” as was the case in Isaiah 6:13? There are two ways of looking at this. First, we could read this as a curse upon Israel as a whole. They will no longer be God’s people and they are about to be replaced by the church. This is possible, but it seems to me to be theologically driven. Obviously from this side of the events it appears that the church replaced Israel, this parable talks about Israel being “cursed”, so it must predict the coming church. I would like to avoid this as anachronistic – Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history.
A second, better way to look at the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples. This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree. Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him. He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.