When Jesus is walking to Jerusalem, he is hungry and finds a fig tree by the side of the road. He expects to find a bit of fruit, but there is none. Remarkably Jesus pronounces a curse on the tree, saying it will not bear fruit again “until the end of the age.”
What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree? This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The context is important since this is an example of a “Markan Sandwich.” Mark often begins a story, then drops it and tells another longer story, returning to his original story at the end. The material inside this sandwich is the Temple Incident. Jesus condemns the Temple as a “den of thieves” and overturns the tables in order to disrupt business. There are several “conflict stories” following this section of Mark in which Jesus teaches in the temple.
If it is not the time of year for the fig tree to have fruit, what did Jesus expect to find? Some think “winter figs” which are left over from the previous harvest,” or “early figs,” which were hard, immature figs. But the tree has leaves since it is mid-April, therefore Jesus approaches it with the expectation that it will have fruit, but it does not. It has leaves, but no figs, ripe or not. If the tree was barren, then perhaps the regular metaphor from the Hebrew Bible of a barren tree is in mind. A barren tree is used for Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4; Jer 8:13; 24:1–10; 29:17; Hos 9:10; Mic 7:1; Nah 3:12; Prov 27:18) or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Ho 9:15-16). These are not unrelated metaphors and both are appropriate here.
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.
The curse is that the tree will not produce fruit until the end of the age. Some take this to mean that Jesus expects the end of the age before the next fig-harvest, but the phrase “end of the age” always has an eschatological sense. Craig Evans, suggests this means that the tree is cursed “forever” although in the light of Romans 11 and the probability of future of national Israel.
After the events in the temple, the third after the curse is pronounced, 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.
If this is a legitimate way to read this parabolic action, how would it effect the way we read the “Temple action”? Perhaps thinking beyond the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s comments in Romans 11:11-32, does this fig-tree parable make a difference for understanding Israel as the people of God in the present age?