A day after his prophetic demonstration in the Temple, Jesus approaches a fig tree expecting to find some fruit, but there is none. Because there is no fruit, Jesus curses the fig tree (21:18-19). Why does Jesus curse the fig tree?
The adverb “early” (πρωΐ) can have the sense of early morning. The idea here is Jesus and his disciples made an early start to get to Jerusalem before the crowds. While walking down the mount of Olives or across the Kidron Valley, he sees a fig tree and looks for a piece of fruit to satisfy his hunger.
When Jesus approaches the tree, it has no fruit. Why did he think a fig tree would have fruit in the early spring? Although Matthew omits the details, Mark says this is not the time of year for fruit. But even early in the season a fig tree will have some figs which Jesus could eat (old fruit, underripe fruit, etc.) This tree only has leaves, no fruit at all whether good or bad. Nolland says fig trees produce fruit before leaves. That the tree has leaves implies that it ought to have some fruit even this early in the season. He cites Eric F. F. Bishop who took pictures of a fig tree loaded with fruit on April 16, 1936. Bishop also says Palestinians ate unripe figs (Eric F. F. Bishop, Jesus of Palestine [Lutterworth, 1955], 217).
The Old Testament prophets often used barren trees as symbols for Israel’s unfaithfulness.
Jeremiah 8:13 (ESV) When I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
Micah 7:1 (ESV) 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.
Cursing the fig tree is a symbolic miracle which explains what happened in the previous day Temple. Jesus came to his people expecting to find fruit, but there was nothing! This is not a petulant response to finding nothing for breakfast. Jesus does not do miracles for no reason; they all point in some way to his mission as the Messiah.
Jesus says, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” Does this mean Israel has been totally rejected as God’s people? The image is dramatic: the tree withered immediately. The verb “withered” is used in the LXX to describe drying up the Red Sea (Isa 50:2; 2 Kings 19:24), but it is also used various other predictions of apocalyptic destruction and ruined cities (LXX Isa 61:4, translated “deserted”; Jer 25:9, translated “devastation’; Ezek 6:6 and 12:20, translated “abandoned”; Ezek 19:7, translated “desolated”; Ezek 36:4, “deserted places.”)
This symbolic miracle may refer to the judgment on Israel in the very near future. Rome will devastate Jerusalem in AD 70, events Jesus predicts in Matthew 24. For some interpreters, the fig tree represents a final curse on Israel. The kingdom of God has been given to the Gentiles (see, for example, Robert Stein, “The Cleansing of the Temple in Mark (11:15-19),” pages 21-33 in Gospels and Traditions [Baker, 1991]).
The only witnesses to this symbolic miracle are the disciples, the ones who should “get the point.” But like other similar symbolic miracles, the disciples do not immediately understand what Jesus intended by the miracle.
The disciples marvel that the fig tree immediately withered (21:20-22). Why would this surprise them after seeing all the miracles Jesus has already done? Matthew (following Mark) includes a brief teaching about prayer here. Matthew 17:20 is very similar “moving a mountain” saying: “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Since Jesus and his disciples are on (or near) the Mount of Olives, the mountain that is thrown into the sea would be the Mount of Olives. This raises the possibility Jesus has in mind Zechariah 14:4-5. At a time when the nations gather against Jerusalem, the Lord goes out to battle and his feet will touch the Mount of Olives and split the mountain into two parts.
Jesus’s criticism of the temple does not end here, the conflict with the Pharisees is entirely concerned with problems of the temple. The Parable of the Tenants has the priestly aristocracy losing their place of privilege, in the parable of the wedding banquet (22:1-12) the chief priests are replaced by the rabble, the very people who accepted Jesus as the Messiah (the blind and lame, 21:14; tax-collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, 21:32).
In fact, for most of his ministry it is the outcast who accept Jesus as Messiah and savior, the religious aristocracy reject him and plot to kill him.