From fig tree to faith: unpacking the spiritual lessons of Jesus' curse.
Updated: Jul 20
Description: Jesus fed thousands with a few fish and a couple of loafs. So why did he curse a fig tree when it failed to provide fruit? Read on to discover the messages behind the curse.
The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree has puzzled and intrigued readers for centuries. Recorded in the Gospels of Mark (11.12-14) and Matthew (21.18-22), this enigmatic event seems out of character for the compassionate Jesus, known for love, healing, and calming storms.
The Curse and a little background
The two accounts vary slightly, but essentially the story is about Jesus on the road from Bethany with his disciples when he feels hungry. A fig tree draws his attention because it already has a full covering of leaves, i.e. it’s an early bloomer with foliage that indicates it should have early figs. With this expectation, Jesus goes over. Disappointed to find none, he curses the tree so it will never bear fruit. Matthew’s account records that the tree withered at once. Jesus’ symbolic act of judgment, coupled with his follow-up teaching about faith and prayer, are very much intertwined.
So let’s explore some interpretations of the event from different angles. This should help unravel the hidden messages behind Jesus' apparently puzzling curse.
Symbolic Act of Judgment
Cursing the fig tree was a visual lesson about unfruitfulness. Despite having leaves, the tree lacked fruit. Jesus cursed the tree as a warning against appearing to be religious without sincere faith. We know of many things and people who present themselves as genuine, yet fail to deliver. Jesus wanted people to understand the consequences of spiritual unfruitfulness and/or the lack of genuine faith. Like the fig tree with its showy leaves, superficial piety invites judgment, urging us to prioritise true worship and active faith.
Prophetic Message about Jerusalem
Some scholars view the fig tree as a symbol of Israel, the unfaithful nation. Over the years, various prophets had described God looking at Israel (his specially commissioned chosen nation) for ‘early figs,’ i.e. for signs of spiritual fruitfulness, but finding none (e.g. Micah 7.1; Jeremiah 8.13). Israel’s lack of faith and fruitfulness caused God to trigger the curses he had warned about, e.g. in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. As a consequence, two traumatic exiles followed, i.e. after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests.
Those who witnessed the fate of the fig tree would have been well aware of the symbolic significance of Jesus’ action. Accordingly, Jesus' curse becomes a prophetic sign of impending judgment on Jerusalem for rejecting him as the Messiah. For us, the event serves as a call to faith, repentance and renewal.
Teaching about Faith and Prayer
Another explanation centres around Jesus using the fig tree incident to teach his disciples about the power of faith and prayer to bring about significant change. By linking the fig tree’s withering to the disciples' faith, Jesus emphasises the importance of unwavering trust in God. This teaching inspires us to strive to live lives that glorify God and impact the world around us. The challenge is to cultivate a faith that bears fruit, to approach prayer with unwavering trust, and to be authentic in worshipping God.
Another perspective suggests the cursing of the fig tree serves as a prelude to the subsequent cleansing of the temple. The fig tree symbolises the showy barrenness of the religious system that Jesus encountered in the temple. Just as the fig tree lacked fruit, the temple had become a hollow den of hypocrisy and corruption. Jesus' actions challenged the religious establishment, highlighting his authority, and revealing his desire for sincere worship and spiritual fruitfulness.
The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree contains profound spiritual lessons. It warns against superficial piety, encourages genuine faith and prayer, and carries a prophetic message about judgment and spiritual renewal. Combining these interpretations, gives a deeper understanding of Jesus' intentions and their relevance to our lives today.
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.