The story in Mark 11 is one that Christians need to be more perplexed about. But it has sat there for nineteen centuries, bothering only those sensitive souls who’ve divorced themselves from Christianity.
Let’s take a closer look at it:
Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would 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.
So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'”
And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city.
Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. (Mark 11:12-20)
In verse 12, Jesus is hungry and he approaches a fig tree to see if there are any figs on it. (Insight #1: Jesus is not all-knowing here.) But there aren’t any figs, because they’re not in season. Naturally (v. 13). So he curses the tree: “no one shall eat of your fruit again!” (v. 14). Later, when they pass that way again, they see that the tree has withered and died (v. 20). (Insight #2: Jesus’s powers don’t work instantaneously.)
It should bother people more that Jesus is totally unreasonable here. He has no right to expect fruit out of season, nor to curse the poor tree for failing to produce any. (And gee, couldn’t he have performed some loaves-and-fish miracle here?) This should be seen as a major character flaw, but if you start with the pre-existing conception that Jesus is perfect, you tend to overlook any defect or to rationalize defects away. But that’s kind of hard for those lacking the ability to lie to themselves.
So what’s going on with this story? What did the fig tree do to deserve it? When you realize that the fig tree is a scriptural symbol of Israel (Jeremiah 24 & 8:13; Hosea 9:10), this becomes a not-too-subtle way of cursing Israel for not being ready for Jesus, for not bringing forth the fruits of the Kingdom. This is an acted-out parable, a nasty one. It would not have been written by a Jew.
These insights are cinched when you compare it to Luke (13:6-9), where it is a parable. (And amusingly enough, “dung” represents his teaching—how appropriate!) It was one of many fragments of oral tradition that predate any gospel, and Mark must’ve literalized it. Plus Mark 12:12 established Jesus preaching parables against them—or rather, being made to do so, like a poseable action figure.
The fig tree tale in Mark is one of several parts of the New Testament that is anti-Jewish. This and the verbal abuse (John 7:13, 9:22, 19:38, 20:19, plus 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 calling Jews the enemy of the human race) is what lies at the heart of historic “anti-Semitism,” an ugly, irrational mind virus that has led to the deaths and abuse of millions over the centuries, and that still warps our politics today. (Just look at the scapegoating and demonization of George Soros.) Perhaps being consciously aware of all this may act as a vaccine against it. And also knowing who the anti-vaxxers are in this matter.
Another episode that gives too few people pause is when Jesus chases the moneychangers from the Temple grounds (Mark 11:15-17; John 2:13-16). This action is seen approvingly by Christians and secularists alike, by both conservatives and liberals. What’s not to like about routing those greedy bastards who are desecrating the Temple in order to line their pockets with filthy lucre?
But what most people don’t realize is that the moneychangers were performing an essential service. At festival times, people were coming from all over the Mediterranean world, bearing coins that often bore the graven images of foreign gods. These would need to be changed so that people would be able to pay the Temple tax with something whose very appearance was not blasphemous. They also sold the animals used in sacrifice, another service no matter what we may think of animal sacrifice.
Again, the ignorance of the necessity of it means this story must’ve been written by a Gentile unfamiliar with Judaism. The easier to malign it, I guess.
So, when Jesus upends the tables on which they did business, making a commotion, denouncing them angrily, is he not violating the demeanor one would expect in the Temple environs? For sure, this is not the “Jesus, meek and mild” we are told of in Sunday school.
Those who believe in the actual existence of Jesus (which is disputable) point to this as the incident that provoked the priests to petition the Roman overlords to get rid of this troublemaker once and for all (Mark 11:18). Not meek, or mild, or wise.
This story also plays into the anti-Semitic trope of the “dirty Jew” who’ll do anything for a buck. It has had tragic consequences for something that may have been a fiction.