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.]
I almost stood up and interrupted the sermon to ask you this Gavin - I do get the picture of empty worship and everything you explained, but Mark’s note didn’t make sense - thanx
The liberals have a party with that verse, but a natural reading, in context, and a quick glance at the Hebrew & Greek nouns, leave no real uncertainty as to the meaning.
I’m just grateful that our people sit with the text and engage!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That is heart-warming!