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Palm Sunday: A Lesson from a Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14)

On Palm Sunday, the Church pauses to remember and reflect upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus’s final entry into Jerusalem before His crucifixion was triumphal because he rode in as the King of the Jews. Most Christians know about Jesus’ triumphal entry, but fewer know about His triumphal judgment. This Palm Sunday, we shall learn more about an encounter Jesus had with a fig tree in Mark 11:12-14. Mark wrote: “Now the next day, when they had come out of Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He could find something on it. When he came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, “Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.” And his disciples heard it.

The Barren Fig Tree

Jesus, having just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna!” (which means “Messiah, Save Us”, entered the temple, looked around and then went to Bethany with His disciples for the night. The next morning, as Jesus came from Bethany to Jerusalem, He was hungry and saw from a distance an interesting sight. Even though it was not the usual season for figs, He saw a fig tree in leaf that showed the appearance of mature figs. 

In this part of the world there is a season for figs and most species of fig trees bear fruit in that season. There were, however, a few species of fig trees that put out leaves and bear fruit outside the usual season. Being out of season for figs, this perhaps was one of those unusual fig trees that was in leaf out of season and had the possibility of mature figs. Jesus went to see whether or not there were figs on the tree and when He came to it “He found nothing but leaves”. 

The Cursed Fig Tree

When Jesus saw that there were no figs (fruit) on this fig tree He cursed it by saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (14). This curse was effective because the next day, “as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots” (20). Why did Jesus curse the fig tree? Was He angry because He did not get any figs? Was His curse caused by His hunger pains and a complete overreaction against a helpless, innocent plant? We can rest assured that our Lord was not in a bad mood due to hunger and was not overreacting. Jesus, the Son of God who created all things and holds all things together (Col 1:17), was well aware of fig season, well aware of the nature of fig trees, and well aware of the absence of figs on this particular tree before He came up to it.  

So, why did Jesus curse the fig tree? Jesus cursed the fig tree as an object lesson for His disciples and for all Christians. The lesson to be learned is that there is a vast difference between the pretense of fruit and the presence of fruit. Jesus and the disciples saw the leaves (which should signify fruit) but did not find fruit. R.C. Sproul summarized the object lesson well, “Jesus found an object that illustrated the sin of hypocrisy. It had the appearance of fruitfulness, but it was actually barren.” 

Jesus cursed it because those who do not bear fruit are under God’s curse of death. It is not enough to appear fruitful, Jesus calls us to be fruitful. How are we to understand this lesson? John 15 provides the key. Jesus, in John 15:2, said: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit [the Father] takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Those who do not bear fruit are those who do not abide in Christ. The absence of fruit is due to an absence of Christ. It is this group that is fruitless and therefore under God’s curse of death. Jesus continues in John 15:6 by saying, “if anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” What is the fruit? The answer is found in Galatians 5:22-23. It is the fruit (result) of faith. Paul says it “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).  

The Blessed Fig Tree

The fig tree being an object lesson against hypocrisy, it is wrong to think that the answer is to just be a fig tree that tries harder to produce fruit. It is wrong to think, “If God’s curse is on those who do not bear fruit, then I will work hard to bear fruit. I will be more loving, joyful, etc.” The Bible exhorts you to bear fruit and holds you accountable for a lack of fruit, but the Bible is also clear that fruit is only born through faith in Jesus Christ. In John 15:4-5, Jesus said: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” 

The answer is not to try to be more fruitful, but to abide in Christ. Escape from the curse of God does not come by doing better. Galatians 3:10 tells us that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” Just trying to do better results in failure because the Bible says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal 3:10). Galatians 3:11 shows us that God’s curse remains on us in our attempts to do better because “it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law.” It is Christ who “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal 3:13). Do not try to do better, rather repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Salvation comes to us through the Holy Spirit through faith.When Jesus examines your life, does He see the fruit of the Spirit working in your life?  Does Jesus see a life that is fruitful and satisfying to Him and carrying out the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10)?  Or does Jesus, like in our passage, find nothing but leaves?