The Barren Fig Tree
Most of Jesus’ parables were spoken ones; one or two were acted, and this incident of the fruitless fig tree was one of those. On the way from Bethany to Jerusalem one morning, Jesus hungered, and went to a wayside fig tree hoping to find some figs thereon. Failing to find any—Mark says, "for the time of figs was not yet." (v.13) Jesus condemned the tree to perpetual sterility, and shortly afterwards it withered away. The story is recounted by Matthew (21:19‑21) and Mark (11:12‑14; 20‑25) and on the surface seems quite out of accord with the usual character of Jesus. That at least is sufficient justification for looking at it a little more closely.
First of all, a comparison of the two accounts. The crucial remark differs a little between them. Matthew has it, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever" (v.19) which is expressed as a prohibition, and Mark, "No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever" (v.14) which is more like a statement of fact than a prohibition. In Matthew, the tree "withered away" immediately; in Mark it was twenty‑four hours later that it was observed to have "dried up from the roots." (v.20) Matthew’s account makes the incident appear a miracle; Mark’s is more matter‑of‑fact and descriptive, and yields more material for visualising what happened. It is probable though that both were eyewitnesses.
The tree was evidently a wild fig, growing, as is stated, by the roadside, although even if it was a cultivated one and owned by someone, any passer‑by had the right to help himself to the fruit. This was a feature of the Mosaic Law (Deut.23:24‑25; although this clause refers to grapes and wheat only, Josephus in Ant.4:8‑21. states that it was applied to all fruits and crops indiscriminately). Jesus therefore acted quite in accordance with custom in approaching it.
The tree was full of leaves, but Jesus found no figs thereon. Says Mark, "the time of figs was not yet." The incident occurred just before Passover, probably in February or March. This is too early for the normal crop of figs, but young green figs would be forming. Besides these, however, it was normal for a few of the previous year’s crop to remain on the tree throughout the winter and into the spring. Had the tree been a normal one Jesus could have expected to find something edible thereon even though the time for the real crop was still several months away. But He found nothing. The tree was hopelessly barren. Had it fruited the previous year there would have been a few of that crop on its branches; had it been going to fruit this year there would have been some early green ones visible. There was nothing; only a mass of green leaves that belied the sterility of the tree.
It is important to notice that it was not Jesus who made the tree fruitless for the future. It was already barren, uncultivated, with no husbandman to look after it, a mere useless cumberer (burden) of the ground. The Lord’s words only confirmed what was an obvious fact. The A.V. of Matthew is unnecessarily prohibitive; the literal Greek is, in Matthew, "no more—of thee—fruit may be produced—for ever" and in Mark "no more—of thee—for ever—no one—fruit may eat." The tree was already doomed and Jesus formally pronounced its condemnation.
Passing that way the next morning, the disciples found that the rich show of leaves had wilted and the tree was "dried up from the roots." The disciples, wondering, asked of Jesus "how did the fig tree…wither away?" (Matt.21:20 RV; not "how soon" as in the A.V.) Peter, more impetuous, came in with "Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away." (Mark 11:21). He associated Jesus’ words of the previous day with this sudden withering away. The word he used, rendered by the English "curse" means to doom or condemn a thing to destruction, in a case like this a giving up to perpetual sterility, as in its usage in Heb.6:8, speaking of Christians backsliding into Judaism, "that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned." That in turn is based upon the story of Eden and the unprepared outer earth in Gen.3:17‑18; "cursed is the ground for thy sake...thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee." It may well be that Jesus did use his power to accelerate the end of this tree, an end which was inevitable anyway; this at least might have been intended to use the incident as a parable in action for the instruction of the disciples and all who witnessed it. If they were reflective and observant, they would recall that only a few months earlier Jesus had uttered a parable which bore a striking resemblance to this incident. He spoke of a man who had a fruitless fig tree in his vineyard, and after three years thus he told his gardener to "cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?" (Luke 13:6‑9). The gardener begged for one more year’s reprieve for the tree and he would dig around it and fertilise it anew, and if after that it was still barren, he would cut it down. To all who heard the parable it was obvious that Jesus was speaking of the Jewish nation which for three years past had refused his message and brought forth no fruit to God and must inevitably suffer the penalty of that failure. They had produced plenty of leaves of profession but no fruit of faith. For fifteen centuries they had been the chosen people of God, given every facility and encouragement to recognise and accept their Messiah when He should appear, and when He did appear they neither recognised nor accepted him. So they were cast off, rejected, and destroyed. "Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground." Now these same disciples saw that parable re‑enacted in real life. The tree which should have borne fruit was barren; of no further use, it was cast off and rejected.