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Friday, May 27, 2016

Why Does Jesus Curse the Fig Tree?

red breba fig from Lebanon
Today's gospel (Mark 11) has one of those confusing events that always make me scratch my head? Jesus is walking along the road with the apostles and he's hungry. He sees a fig tree growing by the wayside and goes over to look for figs but the tree has none because, as the gospel tells us, "it was not the time for figs." Jesus curses the tree and the next day when He and apostles are returning to Jerusalem, Peter observes that the tree has withered and died.

Now, I think the immediate reaction of many Catholics hearing that today is, "That's not fair. Why should the fig tree be expected to have figs out of season?"

Well, I know that nothing in the Bible is without meaning and nothing Jesus does can possibly be unfair. So I did a little research on the Scripture passage and on fig trees in general. And I found some interesting information from a fig farmer. (Who certainly ought to know about figs.) Here's what I learned from him about "early figs":
Some trees have no early figs at all. But generally speaking, on a “common” fig tree one might find some early figs...depending on the age and size of the tree. These figs are called “breba”. These “breba” figs come below the new leaves. One can actually see the “breba” figs even in the previous winter if you know where to look. Not all the Breba figs will ripen. So early in the season one might find a handfull of breba figs but most of them will abort and drop off....
But the main huge. One of the amazing things about the fig tree is that behind every leaf you will find a fig (sometimes two). So if you have five hundred leaves on a tree, you would expect to get around 500 figs from the main crop, but maybe only a handful of “breba” if you are lucky.
I also read that fig trees can have fruit as many as ten months out of the year. So Jesus wasn't being capricious when he went to look for figs. He was hoping to find the early breba figs. But there's more to the story than that. Even if there were no early figs, the budding figs for the main crop should have been abundant on the tree. As the fig farmer notes, behind every leaf there should have been a fig growing. What did Jesus find? Nothing. The fig trees leaves, with their promise of a plentiful harvest, had no fruit behind them.

As he so often did, Jesus used a natural event as a "teaching moment" for his disciples. He cursed the fig tree and it withered and died. Then he speaks about faith and the power of prayer. What's the message here? Be fruitful. Perhaps Jesus was thinking of the pharisees with their outward show of faith, their widened phylacteries, tassels, and bells. We might use the phrase "bells and whistles" to describe their great show of piety (the leaves of the fig tree). But behind the leaves -- nothing.

Followers of Christ would be wise to take this story to heart. We are called to be fruitful. If all our piety is for show with little or no "fruit" we can expect to be "cursed" like the fig tree "for I was hungry and you gave me not food, thirsty and you gave me no drink."

Help me Lord to take every opportunity today to be a fruitful fig tree serving You faithfully.


Alan Holck said...

The fig tree passage is bracketed by the Entry into Jerusalem & the Cleansing of the Temple. My understanding is that the author of Mark used the tree as a metaphor for the temple - he curses it & it dies quickly, but the temple would remain until ~70 AD when the Romans destroyed it.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

I've read that also. Seems this passage has a lot to say on a number of levels.