All of the Gospels have a story about a fig tree. Not just parables, actually. There are those, too, when Jesus uses illustrations having to do with fig trees. But there are accounts of actual events having to do with fig trees in all four Gospels.
Matthew has given the reader an intricately woven account in his Gospel with Jesus’ cleansing of the temple courts taking place immediately before the fig tree is cursed and Jesus’ authority being questioned by the religious bigwigs immediately after. Having just condemned the practices in the temple where people are treated as sources of income for the priesthood (Matt. 21:12–13), Jesus then heals many and receives their adulation, to the consternation of the religious elite.
Following this, Jesus leaves the city and we find him returning with his disciples the next morning. He is hungry and spots a fig tree. He approaches it in hopes of finding something to eat, but finds only leaves (21:18 –19). He then pronounces a curse on the tree, that no fruit would ever come from it again. The fig tree withers immediately, much to the disciples’ surprise.
That seems harsh. All because he didn’t find a fig when he was hungry?
When we turn to Mark’s account, we quickly notice it is broken into two parts, happening on consecutive days, with Jesus’ cleansing the temple in between (Mark 11:12–14, 20–25). It is not difficult for the thoughtful reader to put together the literary structure. Again, we are told Jesus is hungry, and again he has approached the fig tree in hopes of finding fruit. But he finds “nothing but leaves” (11:12–13). Mark does add, however, the curious explanation, “for it was not the season for figs.” This is strange, indeed. Jesus is cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season? Why would he do such a thing?
Jesus then moves on into the city where he cleanses the temple in retribution for the greed of those in power. His teaching astonishes the crowds and leaves the religious leaders with murder on their minds (11:18). Jesus then exits the city.
On the way in the next day, the disciples see the same fig tree Jesus cursed the day before, now withered from the root (11:20). Peter is astounded as he points it out to Jesus (11:21). As in Matthew, Jesus uses an illustration about a faithful follower of God commanding a mountain to be thrown into the sea and it being done (11:23). This is interesting considering that the last “mountain” Jesus has been to with the disciples is the temple mount where Jesus’ anger was on full display to all present.
Of course, Matthew and Mark are using the fig tree as an illustration of the curse being placed on the hypocritical and unfruitful religious system that has taken hold in Israel. The Son of God has come seeking fruit of righteousness (Isa. 45:8) and has found “nothing but leaves.” The fact that the fig tree did not produce fruit because it was not the right season is subtly explained for the thoughtful Bible student. The fig tree is the religious system. It is not currently producing fruit in this season of its existence. It cannot because of the poor gardeners who have overseen it. It has plenty of leaves to make it look good from a distance, but close examination reveals that it is devoid (naked) of fruit.[i]
John is actually not far from Matthew or Mark in the implications of his own fig tree account (John 1:47–51). In a twist, John includes the story of the temple’s cleansing at the beginning of his Gospel rather than in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth as do Matthew and Mark. It is only two pericopes away from this fig tree story (2:13–22). The only story in between the two is about Jesus’ first miracle in which Jesus subtly establishes himself as the true Bridegroom by providing the best imaginable wine at the wedding (2:1–12).
In John’s fig tree story, Jesus sees a faithful disciple while he is “under the fig tree” (1:48). He has obviously left from that covering to come to Jesus. Then Jesus’ Bridegroom status is revealed. Then the temple practices are cursed. If the fig tree holds the same connections to the religious establishment in John as it obviously does in Matthew and Mark, then John’s implication is clear: Jesus has come to call the faithful (guileless or sincere) to move from under the “fig tree” and follow him.
In the Old Testament, it is a good thing for a person to live “under his own fig tree” during times of peace and prosperity in God’s Kingdom (1 Kgs. 4:25; Prov. 27:18; Mic. 4:4). But God has looked for fruit on the fig tree before and found none, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem (Jer. 8:13; Hab. 3:17). Indeed, it would be a good thing to be called out from under the fig tree before such a devastating blow as was leveled by God against Jerusalem by Babylon and later by Rome.
To get at the root of the problem, however, we must go all the way back to Genesis 3. As is so often the case, the answers to our questions can be found in the earliest chapters of the Bible. According to James Jordan, “The entire symbolic world is one organized and unified worldview, a worldview that actually takes its rise in the first chapters of Genesis. The symbolic meanings and associations of earth, sea, rocks, stars, plants, animals, serpents, trees, fruit, and all else are set out in these chapters. The rest of the Bible simply unlocks their meanings.”[ii]
Early in Genesis we find that Adam and Eve have committed the first sin by doing the only thing they were instructed not to do. They have eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of the Good and Evil (Gen. 3:6). This great sin which would forever reverberate through humanity caused their eyes to become opened to their own nakedness—that is, to their own unrighteousness and shame before the holy God and one another (cf. Isa. 47:3; Lam. 1:8; Ezek. 16:37; 23:18, 29; Nah. 3:5).
Alastair Roberts has put it very well: “Following their sin, the nakedness of the couple was a threatening one of exposure in their guilt and shame, but also a sign of their utter unpreparedness for the role that they had grasped for themselves. Their opened eyes occasioned a painful self-awareness, as what should have been the glorious judgment of kingly wisdom curdled into condemnatory self-accusation.”[iii] They wished to make their own decisions for themselves about right and wrong, having full authority in their own lives, but they were utterly ill-prepared for this role, having only the desire to rule but not having yet acquired the wisdom. They were naked. We could also say, they had no fruit of righteousness to offer.
And how did they choose to try by themselves to cover their nakedness and guilt? With fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). They had no fruit of righteousness to offer God. Just like the fig tree in both Matthew and Mark, they were covered in leaves but had nothing of substance.
Since the beginning, fig leaves have become symbolic of man’s desire to provide a covering for his own unrighteousness. Adam and Eve’s relationship with God and one another was broken and the consequence would be death for them, except that God himself provided a way for their nakedness to be covered through the implied death of another living creature, apparently the first death in Scripture (Gen. 3:21).
In the same way, the nakedness and guilt of a faulty religious system has been exposed in Jesus’ day—a system that was a leafy tree from a distant viewpoint, but yielded no fruit to those seeking spiritual sustenance, let alone to God seeking fruit of righteousness.
Now fast forward to Luke’s Gospel. Luke chooses to take a close look at the fig tree also, but from a different perspective.
Luke begins in 13:6–9 with a parable told by Jesus that is unique to Luke’s Gospel. It speaks of a vineyard owner who has a fig tree in his vineyard. But over three year’s time, the vineyard owner has come to the tree seeking fruit but has found none. He is of a mind to chop down the fig tree. The vinedresser, however, convinces the owner to give him one more year to do all he can to make the tree fruitful before cutting it down. Will the fig tree ever bear fruit? We do not hear of a fig tree again until chapter 19.
Luke brings up another fig tree story unique to his gospel in 19:1–10. It is a different word for fig tree than we are used to, but its meaning is clear nonetheless. It is a sycamore-fig tree (19:4; see NIV; NLT). Luke is quite likely giving a subtle nod to Amos here, as this is the same kind of tree that the prophet tended when he was called to go to fruitless northern Israel with a word about their coming destruction (Amos 7:14).
In Luke’s account, Jesus is passing by on the road and a short chief tax collector named Zacchaeus wishes to see him. But the only way he feels he can possibly see over the crowd is to climb the nearest tree.
When Jesus comes to the fig tree in which Zacchaeus is perched (or should we say dangled?), he looks into it as he does in both Matthew and Mark. But it is not barrenness he discovers this time, but fruitfulness! And excellent fruit at that, as proven by Zacchaeus’ generous promise in 19:8 toward the poor and those whom he may have defrauded. Jesus has found fruit in the fig tree in Luke, but it was not a priest or a Levite or a Pharisee, but a tax collector of all things. Even a chief tax collector!
Luke’s path to the fig tree has taken a different turn from Matthew’s, Mark’s, and John’s. Once again, Luke has taken the opportunity to turn his reader’s attention to the outsider, the downtrodden, and the ostracized. He knows of the barren fig tree, to be sure. It is a tree that has been through many seasons of only bearing leaves since the very beginning. But then Jesus comes along, the vinedresser of Luke 13:6–9. Jesus believes this fig tree may yet have hope of producing good fruit and wishes to give it some very special agricultural attention for a final season (13:8). As always, he is right in his desire to pour energies and time into even that which looks perpetually unfruitful, expecting the unexpected as he hopes for a righteous return on his merciful and toilsome investment.
The fact that the fruit takes an unexpected shape is perhaps the most incredible result of the effort. One might expect fruit that tastes good to look good on the outside as well. But that is not the case. This fruit does not take the sparkling countenance of a finely dressed high priest, a phylactery-wearing Pharisee, or even a scroll-carrying scribe. On the outside, this sweet-tasting fruit which Jesus plucks from the fig tree is none other than a misshapen, slightly-bruised tax collector. Yet it is a beautiful harvest to the vinedresser and the vineyard owner, both of whom are more concerned with the flavor in the depths of the fruit than the skin.
Matthew, Mark, and John have all included wonderfully written and insightful stories of the fig tree on their own. All have connected them closely with an unfruitful religious system that is soon to be cursed, withered, and removed by the vineyard owner. The lessons to be learned from this negative portrayal of a fruitless fig tree are clear and should be heeded in full seriousness.
Luke, though, has given the reader something else to consider and has done it from a positive perspective. In his estimation, the fig tree that has been producing only leaves for so long can still be tended into fruit-bearing. With the proper kind of care, fruit will come even from that which was once barren. The harvest will likely look different than expected but the bounty and enjoyment will far overcome any doubts held by skeptical farmers who may have watched the process from outside.
Good fruit is not found in the orchard with the prettiest trees. Green leaves and thick foliage, it turns out, are not necessarily a sign of any fruit at all. According to Luke, there is a vinedresser at work, however. One who is able to coax fruit from fruitless trees and vines through the special attention that only he can give. In the end, a naked tree will be covered, finally, though not by leaves alone. It will be with an abundance of fruit produced through the care and commitment of the only one who causes good fruit to flourish.