Derek Leman is a Messianic Jewish rabbi, and I subscribe to his free Daily D’Var, in which he comments on passages in the Torah and the Gospels from a religious and a scholarly perspective. I would like to share here his comments today on Mark 11:12-14 and 20-25. It is phenomenal!
“12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it . . .
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.””
(Mark 11:12–14, 20–25 ESV)
NOTES: This whole section in vss. 14-25 is a classic example of what some have called the Markan sandwich technique. He begins to tell a story, follows with another scene which may not seem to be related, and then returns to the story. So, here, Yeshua curses a fig tree and then the story of his Temple protest action is related. But the next morning, the story comes back to the fig tree. I will save most of my comments on the Temple protest action in vss. 15-19 and focus here on vss.12-14 and 20-25 about the lesson of the fig tree. The episode raises a number of questions. Is Yeshua’s cursing a fig tree rational or irrational? Does the fig tree symbolize something specific and should we try to find the exact reference? Which mountain does Yeshua have in mind for being moved by prayer? How does the fig tree lesson relate to the Temple protest action? To begin, we need to understand the seasons for figs in Israel. By Passover there would usually be leaves, but no figs. By Shavuot, the same time as the wheat harvest, would be the early crop of figs (there are two fig crops a year in Israel’s climate). Therefore, and as Mark is careful to point out, it is irrational for Yeshua to expect figs at Passover. This means his action with the fig tree is purely symbolic. His curious action, a prophetic enactment, is meant to make the disciples curious. The next morning, after the Temple protest action, Peter remembers the fig tree as they pass it, now brown and withered. Does Yeshua now launch into a lesson about Israel being fruitless and unworthy, as we might expect? Not at all. He launches into a lesson about the power of prayer. What could it all mean? First, it is helpful to know that the fig comes up as a symbol in the prophets several times for Israel’s faith and fruitfulness. Micah speaks of God’s disappointment at finding no fig to eat in Israel (7:1). Hosea describes Israel as a withered fig tree without fruit (9:10). Yet the promise of a great age of peace is that every man will sit under his vine and fig tree (Isa 36:16; Mic 4:4). Second, we should forget about some specific symbolic meaning, since Yeshua gives no such clues. Neither should we read the mountain of vs. 23 with some specific reference (as if this is about the Mount of Olives and the Zechariah 14 imagery, as some interpreters do). Yeshua does not take the lesson in this direction. Note that Yeshua’s words about faith moving a mountain come up again in Paul in 1 Cor 13:2 (“faith so as to move mountains”). What we have here is a potent contrast between the powerful Temple state and the humble disciple group. The Temple, though holy, has become corrupt through its leadership. It is a religious institution of vast wealth and power. But it is not effective at making Israel holy and fruitful. So, Yeshua, powerless and alone, makes an ineffective protest action, an irrational act which cannot succeed (like his irrational expectation of a fig tree to have early fruit). But while Yeshua’s protest does not bring the Temple to its knees, his curse does wither a fig tree. This leads to a lesson about prayer. The humble disciple group has more power than all the Temple state. If they do God’s will and pray, nothing is beyond their ability. God will move mountains, shake empires, and change the world through them. Their power is not in wealth or position, but in prayer, forgiveness, and faith.