Even people who do not believe in Jesus usually are willing to grant Him the status of a good moral teacher or maybe even a prophet. There have been exceptions, however, and several of them have pointed to today’s passage to prove that Jesus’ character was not flawless. How could a morally pure individual curse an innocent fig tree? these critics have asked (Mark 11:12–14).
Certainly, something does seem odd about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree, at least at first glance. After all, we do not normally go around cursing plants that fail to have fruit on them when we think they should. But much of the concern regarding this episode dissipates when we know something about fig trees in the Holy Land.
There are two possibilities that indicate that Jesus’ behavior was not so strange after all. First, some biblical archaeologists have pointed out that while the majority of Palestinian fig trees bear fruit in one particular season, there are other varieties that bear fruit throughout the year or at least during the Passover season when Jesus cursed the fig tree in today’s passage. Since this is the case, perhaps Jesus found one of these trees that normally would have fully developed fruit at the time He saw it but in fact did not.
However, even if Jesus encountered a fig tree that was of the variety that did not bear fruit in the spring, it is still true that fruit would ordinarily be found on those trees that were harvested much later. In the spring, these trees, when they were in leaf, would have small green figs that were edible but not particularly tasty. This tree should have had these figs, but Jesus found none there.
Jesus was not endeavoring to hurt innocent fig trees when He cursed the fruitless tree. Instead, He took the opportunity, when He did not encounter fruit as He expected, to perform an object lesson for His disciples. The Old Testament prophets frequently provided vivid illustrations of their teaching by their actions. For example, Jeremiah wore a yoke to reveal that Judah would be under the yoke of Babylonian rule (Jer. 27). Jesus cursed the fig tree in order to teach a spiritual lesson. Like the fig tree, the Jews were supposed to bear good fruit. However, in Jesus’ day, He could not find much spiritual fruit among the religious authorities and even many of the people (Mark 11:20–33; see Matt. 23). He cursed the fig tree to warn the people what would happen to them if they did not repent of their fruitlessness.