There are two accounts in the New Testament where Jesus cursed a fig tree. The curse resulted in the killing of the tree. Why did this happen? In both accounts, Jesus was hungry. He wanted figs! The tree was in leaf, but had no fruit so Jesus cursed the tree and it died. The differences between the two accounts is that in Mark it says it was not the season for fruit, and in Matthew it says the tree withered immediately, not overnight.
Mark 11:12-14 “The next day, Jesus was leaving Bethany. He was hungry. He saw a fig tree with leaves. So he went to the tree to see if it had any figs growing on it. But he found no figs on the tree. There were only leaves, because it was not the right time for figs to grow. So Jesus said to the tree, “People will never eat fruit from you again.” His followers heard him say this.” (ERV)
Mark 11:20-21 “The next morning Jesus was walking with his followers. They saw the fig tree that he spoke to the day before. The tree was dry and dead, even the roots. Peter remembered the tree and said to Jesus, “Teacher, look! Yesterday, you told that fig tree to die. Now it is dry and dead!”” (ERV)
Matthew 21:18-19 “Early the next morning, Jesus was going back to the city. He was very hungry. He saw a fig tree beside the road and went to get a fig from it. But there were no figs on the tree. There were only leaves. So Jesus said to the tree, “You will never again produce fruit!” The tree immediately dried up and died.” (ERV)
This is a tough parable to understand. One possible interpretation that makes sense to me is that botanically fig trees are able to bear fruit two times a year. The main season is in the Summer, and this is why I believe Mark mentioned it was not the right time for fruit. However, fig trees can produce some fruit in the Springtime, called breba, which is when Jesus was walking his last week on Earth. This second season of fruit is produced only on mature branches from the previous year. A healthy fig tree will produce fruit twice a year although sometimes the Springtime fruit is not as good as the Summertime fruit. Knowing this about fig trees helps to understand why Mark mentioned it was not the right time, or as we can understand it, not the main time or regular time for fruit when it appears on new branches.
Now we have a parable where Jesus is hungry and finds a fig tree, but it has no early fruit. This possibly indicates an unhealthy fig tree. Why did Jesus curse this tree? Jesus may have been hungry, but he did not have to curse the tree out of respite. Jesus multiplied fish and bread, and he could, if he wanted, turn rocks into bread. But, this was to be another parable, a lesson for his Disciples. Symbolically the unhealthy fig tree without breba fruit could represent the then current state of Israel before the time when the Temple is destroyed by the Romans. The nation of Israel was already doomed by their rejection of Jesus Christ, their Redeemer and Messiah. They were unable to believe and soon would have their temple destroyed.
Another lesson to learn from this parable is the power of prayer. When Jesus explains that cursing and killing a fig tree was nothing compared to moving a mountain. Given enough faith, anyone can pray for anything and it will happen; only, of course, if it also fits in with God’s plans.
The last thing to discuss is how fast did this fig tree die? Another tough question! This is only resolved when one understands that Matthew wrote thematically whereas Mark wrote chronically. Therefore, in Matthew’s account, the result of Jesus’ cursing the tree was the tree drying up and dying. In Mark’s account, the process of drying and dying was overnight. That is still very fast for a tree to die and considering the Jewish understanding of time, it was probably thought of as immediate. This conclusion is strengthened when understanding the differences of writing style between Mark and Matthew.
I don’t know about you, but I’m encouraged by knowing about the power of prayer and that God always listens to our prayer. As our faith grows, our prayers are more and more answered by God. Nothing is impossible given enough faith (Matthew 17:20).