Why did Jesus curse the fig tree when it had no figs, and yet Mark clearly made the point in Mark 11:13 that it was not the season for figs?
A few folk picked up on that yesterday after the service – well done! Good Bereans, following the text!!!! OK, I alluded to the solution in the way I unpacked the passage, but didn’t want to get lost in the technical details. The answer is not hard, and lies in a careful lexical and contextual understanding.
In essence, as I explained, fig trees are unique in that the fruit appears before the leaves. Early buds comes BEFORE the leaves appear. Therefore, tree with leaves should have fruit! So how then do we read Mark’s enigmatic comment? Remember that, firstly, Mark often inserts explanatory notes, so this comment is quite possibly for the benefit of those who were not familiar with fig botany! Secondly, different Greek words were used to describe the young buds and the mature fruit. So the sense is that is was the season for young buds, even if the full, ripe figs had not developed. The point remains: this tree was deceptive because it was in full leaf, but had no fruit – it remains a picture of the empty worship of Israel at the time!
For those wanting the technical stuff, Edwards’ commentary excerpt here might be of value:
The sandwich complex begins on the road from Bethany, which John 11:18 identifies as “fifteen stadia” (slightly less than two miles) from Jerusalem. Jesus is hungry, and seeing from a distance a fig tree in leaf he approaches it in hopes of finding something to eat. In disappointment at finding no figs, and in earshot of the disciples, he condemns the tree.
After the fig harvest from mid-August to mid-October, the branches of fig trees sprout buds that remain undeveloped throughout the winter. These buds swell into small green knops known in Hebrew as paggim in March–April, followed shortly by the sprouting of leaf buds on the same branches, usually in April. The fig tree thus produces fig knops before it produces leaves. Once a fig tree is in leaf one therefore expects to find branches loaded with paggim in various stages of maturation. This is implied in 11:13, where Jesus, seeing a fig tree in full foliage, turns aside in hopes of finding something edible. In the spring of the year the paggim are of course not yet ripened into mature summer figs, but they can be eaten, and often are by natives (Hos 9:10; Cant 2:13). The tree in v. 13, however, turns out to be deceptive, for it is green in foliage, but when Jesus inspects it he finds no paggim; it is a tree with the signs of fruit but with no fruit.
The most puzzling part of the brief narrative of the cursing of the fig tree is the end of 11:13, “because it was not the season of figs.” This phrase is usually understood to exonerate the tree for not producing fruit since it was not yet the season. Understood as such, the phrase makes Jesus’ curse vindictive and irrational, as Bertrand Russell deduced. But this is neither the only nor the best way to understand the phrase. It is better simply to distinguish between mature figs (Gk. sykē; Heb. te’enim) and early or unripe figs (Heb. paggim). The end of v. 13 might be paraphrased, “It was, of course, not the season for figs, but it was for paggim.” [Edwards, J.R., 2002. The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.]
We don’t have to go far to hear the verbal misuse of the Lord’s name. Sometimes some other adjectives are put alongside those names for more effect. It’s on TV. Movies are full of that kind of speech. Comedians try to add to their supposed humour by injecting profanity and blasphemy into their shows. Sit in the workplace, and you’ll hear it. School corridors, playgrounds, sport fields and gym change rooms echo with the name of God, used to punctuate sentences. You’ll hear on the Tee boxes on golf courses as shots are pulled and shanked. You’ll hear “Jesus” and “O my God” statements coming from the table next to you in a restaurant, and it is sadly evident that it’s not believers swapping testimonies…
The use, and in fact misuse of God’s name, is commonplace. So then, how do we handle that as believers?
The “10 Commandments” seems so clear, right?
““You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, ESV)
Based on that verse – that commandment – Christians seem to be offended. We’ve got to go and tell them to stop, right? That verbal, auditory offence gets under the skin of professing believers in Christ. And so there are many – in good conscience – who feel the need to go to your friend, family member, golfing partner or boss and tell them not to use your God’s name in vain – in such a cheap, shallow way. “God’s name is being verbally profaned and I need to defend God’s honour and tell them to stop!”
But let’s stretch the thinking a bit… and please do not accuse me of heresy! This is merely to broaden the dialogue. Is that thinking not inconsistent? See, God doesn’t call us to defend His name, does He? Look at the context in Exodus 20 :-
Commandment #1 : ““You shall have no other gods before me.
Commandment #2 : “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3–4, ESV)
Just think about it… God prohibits false religion and idolatry in commandments 1 & 2. Then He gives the prohibition on misuse of His name. And what do Christians get the most hung up on? Blasphemy, right?
Just imagine a devout, Bible-believing believer in an open plan office… together with 3 other colleagues : a Moslem, a Buddhist and an atheist who openly blasphemes.
What is the typical response from the Christian? “O, got to tell that guy to stop saying God’s name in vain because it is offensive to me!”
Huh? But there is no offence because of the openly false religion that is flaunted and celebrated and promoted, and no offence taken to the Buddha or frog or whatever that openly sits on the desk?
How often are our responses as believers to the spoken misuse of God’s name fuelled more by our own personal offence to the auditory insult, rather than a real genuine concern for God’s glory? If we were genuinely consumed with God’s honour being offended, would we not be as horrified and as confrontational about the falsehood of the wrong religious systems and the visual idols that are so openly displayed, even more than the verbal misuse that occurs?
Just a thought...