Jesus once cursed a fig tree with the words, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next morning, the tree was withered away to its roots, which shocked his disciples. Yes, this is a weird and disturbing portrayal of Jesus. And it is weird and disturbing in more than one way. But it occurred. Jesus cursed a fig tree for real. It actually, literally occurred within Jesus’ final week of ministry before the cross.
Let me explain why I say it actually, literally occurred. The primary reason to say it must have happened is precisely because of its weirdness. His cursing of the fig tree makes Jesus look a bit mad, a bit off. Who in their right mind gets frustrated with a fruit tree and curses it? Perhaps some of us might be impetuous enough to vent our hungry frustration at an unfruitful fig tree; but if we did, we would probably do so under our breath, lest bystanders hear us and think us potentially unstable. Jesus, however, cursed the fig tree loud enough for his disciples to hear; and they in turn decided that the event (and its dramatic, withering aftermath) needed to be recorded for the benefit of all posterity.
Yet this is undeniably weird behavior from Jesus; is it not? So why would his followers record it? They would not have invented this. Why would they? The whole point of the four gospels is to glorify Jesus and present him as the Savior of the world, as someone who is worthy of complete allegiance. The point is certainly not to make Jesus look impetuous, irrational, and zany. Therefore, his followers would only have recorded and relayed this rather strange and somewhat embarrassing episode if it actually happened. Moreover, it was recorded not just once, but twice, in both Matthew and Mark (see Matthew 21:18-19 = Mark 11:12-14). In addition, it is possibly alluded to in a parable in Luke (see Luke 13:6-9).
Hereafter, I argue that the parable in Luke serves to interpret the meaning of the indubitably historical event which Matthew and Mark both record. Indeed, the parable in Luke Chapter 13 explains the whole event, even if Luke was not intentionally alluding to it. It does not matter whether Luke the Gospel writer was aware of the connection between the fig tree parable and the fig tree historical event. What matters is that the Holy Spirit orchestrated the scriptural inclusion of the parable in Luke and the two recordings of the historical event in Matthew and Mark. Jesus spoke the parable of the fig tree; and he cursed the actual fig tree on separate occasions. The Holy Spirit made sure that everything related to the fig tree was recorded in the Gospels — including the parable and the two historical accounts of the event. The Holy Spirit did so because the parable explains the event. If you read and understand the parable, it becomes clear that Jesus was not acting in an impetuous, irrational, or zany manner. Instead, the entire event was a veiled prophetic pronouncement. The event was an enacted parable.
The literal fig tree that Jesus literally cursed represented something else. Get that. The fig tree was a representation or a figure of something else. The fig tree was an effigy. The literal fig tree was a figurative representation. The fig tree represented something else. But what might that something else be? What might Jesus have been so frustrated with? Maybe Luke 13:6-9 will begin to help us figure that out.
Luke 13:6-9 tells the story of a conversation between a land owner and a gardener. Although the land owner is unhappy and ready to chop down a particular barren fig tree, the gardener intercedes on its behalf. He appeals for one more year to tend and fertilize the tree. Yet the gardener concedes that if the fig tree fails to yield fruit after a year, then, yes, the land owner should cut it down. Curiously, the land owner is very specific about how long the he had been looking for fruit from this particular fig tree — three years, which is the same length of time as Jesus’ public ministry. Does that mean that the gardener represents Jesus himself? Indeed, it does. The land owner should be understood as God, and Jesus, as the gardener. The fig-tree parable is about God’s impending judgment upon his own chosen people. Luke Chapter 12 and the rest of Chapter 13 bear this frightening interpretation out. In fact, at the end of Chapter 13, Jesus laments over the forthcoming doom of the City of Jerusalem, since its residents had been unreceptive to him, just as they had with previous prophets.
This interpretation is all the more certain when the Old Testament is cross-referenced. Using gardening metaphors in Hosea 9:10-17, God indicts his chosen people for their rebellion and their obstinance. Verses 16 and 17 include an especially poignant prophecy of judgment. But rather than quote them here, I would encourage my readers or listeners to go read those two verses for themselves.
The barren fig-tree in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then, is a figurative symbol, used consistently in every instance. It represents an obstinate, unreceptive group of people — people who should have known better. But you might miss all this if you do not recognize the symbolism for what it is. And this is how prophetic material often appears in the Bible, in terms of representative symbolism. If a reader catches that, it unlocks the manner in which we are to approach a lot of prophetic material in scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments.
With an overly literalistic reading of the fig-tree curse, Jesus comes across as an impetuous and maybe even capricious person. But with a symbolic reading of the fig-tree curse, Jesus’ actions are entirely understandable as enacted prophecy. The tendency to insist on the most literal interpretation possible can lead to gross misunderstanding and even theological error.