Why did Jesus curse the fig tree?

I got asked this question at one of our recent Muslim-Christian dialogue evenings. It wasn’t quite in this form. It was put to me in this form, ‘if Jesus is God, why did he curse the fig tree? Did he not know it wasn’t the season for figs?’

In the form I was asked the question, my answer was straightforward. Jesus was offering an enacted parable and it wasn’t primarily to do with the presence of figs or otherwise. The primary purpose of the curse was a picture of Israel’s fruitlessness as a nation. Jesus wasn’t angry at a tree (that would be insane); he was showing his disciples the barrenness of religion – particularly the religious leaders – in Israel.

The Gospel Coalition has also answered this question. They ask and answer the question in a slightly different form but, happily, they offer the same essential answer as I did (phew!) You can read the full article here. But the key section is this:

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is described as God’s vineyard, tree, or planting (Judges 9:8–15Isa. 3:145:1–7Jer. 12:10Ezek. 17:2–1019:10–14). As any agrarian Israelite knew, the firstfruits of the harvest belong to God (Ex. 23:19Neh. 10:35–37), which helps conceptualize their relationship to God: as his own special planting, they must yield spiritual fruit as his covenant people (Ps. 1:3Jer. 17:8–10). Israel’s fruitfulness (literal or otherwise) is not the basis of their relationship with God, for it is God who gives fruitfulness (Deut. 7:1328:4). A lack of fruitfulness is a sign of God’s curse for their rebellion (Deut. 11:17).

This foundational metaphor for Israel’s spiritual health vividly blooms in the prophetic era. The time had come for God’s people to yield fruit that would bless the world (Isa. 27:6). Several times the prophets describe God as inspecting Israel for “early figs,” as a sign of spiritual fruitfulness (Mic. 7:1Jer. 8:13Hos. 9:10–17)—but he finds “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” So in two exiles (Assyrian and Babylonian), God pours out the curse of barrenness (Hos. 9:16), and Israel becomes a rotten fig (Jer. 29:17).

But all is not lost. God promises to one day replant Israel and produce healthy figs from her again (Joel 2:22Amos 9:14Mic. 4:4Zech. 8:12Ezek. 36:8).

With this web of background images, light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he re-enacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.

Light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he reenacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.

The fruitless fig tree draws us back to prior points in Jesus’s ministry, when God’s people were called to produce spiritual fruit (Matt. 3:8–107:16–2013:8Luke 3:7–9). Jesus has pursued the children of God with compassionate seriousness (Luke 13:34). And the Jewish crowds—gathering to celebrate God’s past act of redemption (Passover/exodus)—have just hailed Jesus as “king” while he leads a new exodus on a meaning-laden donkey (Zech. 9:9).

The eschatological restoration has arrived. Everything is lining up. Israel’s fruit will now be harvested; blessing will now pour forth. While the rest of the nations—the other fig trees—are not yet in season, this one tree is “in leaf.” And both Matthew and Mark, by “sandwiching” the fig tree episode, focus the lens on where it will all transpire: Jerusalem.

  • Matthew: Jerusalem → Fig tree → Jerusalem
  • Mark: Fig tree → Jerusalem → Fig tree

Except there’s no fruit. The fig tree, once again, has failed. The Passover celebration, the tumult, the crowds, the singing—it’s all a show. Jesus enters God’s house of prayer and finds it a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Lots of action, lots of bustle, but no righteousness. Leaves, but no fruit.

So upon inspecting the fruitless tree, Jesus pours out divine judgment via two sign-acts: the future-pointing act of cursing the temple, and the enacted metaphor of cursing the tree.