In chapters 10 and 11 of Mark's Gospel, the writer tells of how Jesus and His disciples were travelling up to Jerusalem. They were headed toward the Passover celebration. It also seems that Jesus had, unbeknownst to them, been arranging a donkey and rented room for the Passover meal.

Healed of his blindness, Bartimaeus of Jericho has joined the throng of people going along the road with the rabbi from Galilee. And as the crowds swell, and there are cries of “Hosannah” and the air is full of expectation about the coming of David’s restored kingdom. But alongside the cleansing of the temple we also read about this curious incident with the fig tree that is played out before Jesus’ disciples. Jesus seems to have left His disciples, and us, pondering over what Peter called the “curse” of the fig-less fig tree.

PICTURE: Mat Prime/www.sxc.hu 

"But now Jesus the Rabbi used the fig tree to teach His disciples about God's love and mercy, about His judgments and His forgiveness. The encounter with the fig tree tells us a little about how Jesus was overwhelmed with grief at the rebellion of Israel. This was a people - not unlike us today - with no harvest of righteousness to offer the Saviour. What sacrifice could they offer? Indeed, what can we offer?"

Could Mark have told us this story to indicate that Jesus was under so much pressure that He finally cracked and took it out on a poor old fig tree? Are we, perhaps, to feel sorry for the tree? Mark does seem to be telling his readers that Jesus, once more, confused His disciples. But what did He intend by this? What did the incident with the fig tree signify?

Let's look again at what it says. There was contact with the fig-less fig tree both before and after Jesus threw out the money-changers from the Temple's court of the Gentiles.

That morning, Jesus presented Himself to His disciples as one in search of a fig to satisfy a mid-morning hunger. The tree was in leaf but there were no figs and no prospect of a harvest of figs. The tree was fig-less. They were passing through a vineyard or an orchard. It may not have been the season for figs, but Jesus told the fig tree that its time was up.

That's tough talk. His disciples heard it, remembering it later. It already seems to be such a strange event even before we read that next day they noticed that the fig tree had withered. 

I suspect that Jesus was using a "real life" parable, like His riding on donkey into Jerusalem. The fig tree did not even have some immature green figs on it. It may have been in leaf but it was clearly not going to give any figs, not that year anyway. So what was Jesus teaching wanting to teach them? A farmer makes decisions to cut trees out of his orchard to ensure that what is growing there does what it has been planted to do. If there are no green figs then the fig tree's day of judgment has come.

Jesus knew that His work was coming to a climax. We note His deep sadness at the hardness of heart of those claiming to be God's own people. We are told He wept over Jerusalem where godly prophets had been killed for their obedience to the One who had made their lives and their worship possible. But this event seems to be part of Jesus' discovery of the depth of His Father's anger at the sins that would put the Son of Man to the gallows. Does it not remind us of the Lord cursing the ground when He set forth the consequences of the rebellion of the man and the woman? (Genesis 3:17)

But now Jesus the Rabbi used the fig tree to teach His disciples about God's love and mercy, about His judgments and His forgiveness. The encounter with the fig tree tells us a little about how Jesus was overwhelmed with grief at the rebellion of Israel. This was a people - not unlike us today - with no harvest of righteousness to offer the Saviour. What sacrifice could they offer? Indeed, what can we offer?

Had the Father's purposes for His image-bearers been thwarted? Even the Gentiles who had gone to the temple to learn of the God of Israel had their search blocked by idolatrous commerce. That was why the money-changers and the traders had been thrown out.

But now what about this fig-less fig tree in that context? Yes, this would assist the understanding of Jesus' disciples about the righteous expression of anger. It's not sinful to be angry. And it's certainly not wrong to pull out a fig tree that has had its chance but has failed to come up with the goods. The fig tree had been a seedling, planted in order that during its lifetime it would give forth figs. But a fig-less tree has to be taken out. Its time has come and gone. Even if it were not the season for ripe figs there should have been green figs on it. Fig trees are in leaf 10 months of the year in Israel and this tree had leaves on it with no sign of figs. Maybe Jesus could have taken a green fig to suck on? But there were none. 

"The fig tree had been a seedling, planted in order that during its lifetime it would give forth figs. But a fig-less tree has to be taken out. Its time has come and gone."

On an earlier occasion, Jesus told a parable which reminds us of this very event. It was about a fig tree in a vineyard that also wasn't growing any figs. The story went like this:

A man planted a fig tree in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit and found none. He said to the vinedresser, "Lo, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down now; why should it use up the ground?" And he answered, "Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it, and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down" (Luke 9:6-9).

The parable reminded all who claimed to be God's people that they are under God's scrutiny. They have been nurtured in order that fruit can appear and be harvested from their branches. In the parable the fig tree is given one last chance. But when Jesus met this real life fig tree His words indicate that it had already had its last chance. And then, the next morning, on their way back to the temple, Jesus was again teaching His disciples when Peter piped up with the observation that the fig tree had shrivelled. For Peter, Jesus' curse had worked. The fig tree will never again give figs. 

But now consider the next part of the account. When Peter pointed this out, Jesus did not have an explanation ready about the behaviour of fig trees. Or even about cursing. Instead, this was the occasion when Jesus talked about faith and forgiveness. Why was He changing the topic? My hunch is that He wasn't. Jesus was really taking up the issue Peter had raised, discussing the fig tree with yesterday's "curse" in relation to what He had been doing in the temple. Jesus was not only talking about the uprooting of the fig tree. He was teaching about Himself and explaining to them the meaning of the cleansing of the temple the day before.

Jesus' answer was very direct. We might say He was "full on". His answer addresses the fear that Peter, and the other disciples, had. They seem to be worrying that Jesus had "cracked it", not just with the fig tree but with the way He had kicked the money-changers out of the temple. If we were there wouldn't we suspect that all the problems and tensions that He had to face had finally got to Him? Wouldn't we suspect He had transferred His tension to let the fig tree have it?

But no. Jesus got them thinking about faith, faith in God the Father. And it is certainly not some teaching in which belief in God makes everything OK. Jesus told His disciples that having faith in God has everything to do with facing up to the problems we face in life. And that includes being angry. It has to do with facing up to any problems we might encounter about a fig-less fig tree as much as it has to do with a temple that has become a stock exchange, or a political regime that has become corrupted by adultery and marital unfaithfulness. It has as much to do with our relationships with each other, as it has to do with our relationships with the creation around us.

To cut the story short, Jesus gave His word to the fig-less fig tree so His disciples could understand what He was doing when He showed His anger the day before in the cleansing of the temple. With His disciples, Jesus had come to Jerusalem at that time of year to pray to the God of Israel. They came at a time when threats hung over Jesus' life. Their own lives were under threat as well.

"The withering of the fig tree was simply the occasion for Jesus to teach: live by faith in God and forgive. The point from what He taught is this: it is easier for a mountain to be thrown into the sea, or a fig tree to wither due to a curse, than for a mountain of hate to be removed from our hearts, from a habit of cursing others to be wiped from our lips. How do we remove a mountain of hate? How do we desist from cursing? We can't. But God works miracles."

The withering of the fig tree was simply the occasion for Jesus to teach: live by faith in God and forgive. The point from what He taught is this: it is easier for a mountain to be thrown into the sea, or a fig tree to wither due to a curse, than for a mountain of hate to be removed from our hearts, from a habit of cursing others to be wiped from our lips. How do we remove a mountain of hate? How do we desist from cursing? We can't. But God works miracles.

It is not our anger that can do it, even if we should get angry at the hate or the curses some spit at us. It is not by cursing fruitless lives or fig trees although when our lives have become fruitless we will certainly need the Gardener's pruning. 

Jesus says forgive. Forgiveness is a matter of faith. We forgive by faith, just as God has kept His Promises and forgiven us. Jesus helped His disciples see and understand His anger. The figtree should have already been cut down because it had no fruit and was just taking up the soil. Its time was up. Its purpose was in its fruit - no fruit, cut it down.

But the rule is that when we stand before God to pray, we forgive. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. 

When we stand before God, we cannot hide the judgments we have made in our hearts. It is not our task to judge people, even if there is a judgment to be made about fruitless developments we encounter from the injustice and immorality that is all around. So we forgive. If we are angry and furious, we pray to God. By prayer we seek God's deliverance but first we must forgive.

And why? This Rabbi was preparing His disciples to understand that by being uprooted, by becoming a curse for them, He would enabled them, by His Spirit, to forgive. In this way they would become restored in God's own image. This "lesson" about the meaning of His anger in the temple, was to confirm that if we are not forgiving we miss out on the freedom Our Father in Heaven wants us to have in uttering our prayers. Consigning a fig tree to the flames is within our legitimate human responsibility; cursing others however is to deny that we also need forgiveness just like those who have sinned against us.

I think we are to infer from this that having thrown out those sellers and buyers, with all those animals and birds, Jesus went into that part of the temple where He could pray and put His prayers before His Heavenly Father. But first He forgave them. You could say that He was getting into practise, because on the cross, you remember, He prayed: 

Father forgive them! They don't know what they are doing! 

He may not have had any sins of His own that required Divine forgiveness. But He told His disciples that the Son of Man, the Lamb of God who had come to carry the sins of the world, still needed to have His prayers heard when He stood there in front of the Almighty. And that is the important point. Think of it like this: if, when Jesus prayed, He wasn't forgiving those who had sinned against Him, then was He not a hypocrite? He had taught His disciples to forgive, and if He hadn't forgiven those who sinned against Him then, on His own terms, He was no longer qualified to stand before God on our behalf! 

But the glorious message of the Gospel, the message of Easter, is that He indeed became a curse for those who believe, for us, who now follow Him and pray: forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.