2 April 2012

Mark 11:12-25

"He was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the seasno for figs. He said to it, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again.'" (vv. 12b-14)


This story about Jesus and the fruitless fig tree that he blasted with a curse (verse 20 states that it "withered away to its roots") has had Christian interpreters scratching their heads for a way to explain the story without suggesting that Jesus was just grumpy and unreasonable because he was hungry. Matthew, in retelling the story (Matthew 21:18-22), diplomatically omits the point that "it was not the season for figs" and Luke tells a quite different story about unproductive fig trees and what farmers can do about them (Luke 13:6-9).

Denise Levertov, a twentieth-century poet, wrote a poem called "What the fig-tree said", which has the tree itself speaking. It proudly claims to have been used by 'Christ the poet' as a challenging real-life metaphor for the disciples' own unproductive hearts. But the truth is probably a bit more political than this.

There can be no doubt that Mark told the story for its symbolic significance, because in between the start of the tale (Jesus' disappointment) and its conclusion (the withering of the tree) he sandwiches the famous story of the overturning of the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. This is a story about profound disappointment at what was happening at the heart of the temple religion, and the divine anger about the replacement of prayer with commercial interests. Mark uses the fig tree story to comment on the encounter in the temple.

Fig trees and vines are often symbolic in the Hebrew scriptures of the nation of Israel and whether it is bringing forth fruit worthy of God, or producing the sour grapes and vicious thorns of injustice, violence and oppression of the poor (see Isaiah 5:1-7). There can be little doubt that we are given this curious and rather chilling story as a warning against a society and a religious establishment that has lost its way about the true values whose fruits it should be producing.

To Ponder

To what extent do you think our society has lost its way in terms of values? What do you think genuinely 'good fruits' would look like?

Do you think God has ever asked something of you when you were not really ready? What happened?

Bible notes author

Janet Morley

Janet Morley is currently the Commissioning Editor for HOLINESS, the journal of Wesley House, Cambridge ( She worked for ten years in the Connexional Team, with the training and development officers, and latterly, as Head of Christian Communication, Evangelism and Advocacy.