Of the more enigmatic stories in the Synoptic Gospels is the account of Jesus and the fig tree. Before even considering the stories, consider the tree itself. Ficus carica typically grows to 30 feet. But examples are known to grow as high as 80 feet, with spreads of more than 100 feet. The tree can produce two crops, a lesser budding in the spring and a principal crop in the fall. The fig tree would have been considered, in Jesus’ time, a prime example of bounty.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, there are references to barren fig trees. Considering the fact that fig trees were typically considered hardy and bountiful, this suggests the tree would have been diseased or otherwise abnormal. Both the story and the lesson also vary from Gospel to Gospel, suggesting that Jesus used the fig tree as a teaching opportunity on more than one occasion.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sees a fig tree by the road and walks over to it to pick some fruit. Seeing that it is barren, he curses the tree, and it immediately withers. (Mt 21:18-19) What is notable about Matthew’s account is that Jesus curses the fig tree during the Holy Week of Passover, just after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-10), and just before he enters the Temple to debate the religious leaders (Mt 21:23). Some scholars have noted the proximity of the two stories: Jesus cursing of the fig tree (in verse 18) and Jesus entering the Temple (in verse 23). One wonders whether the fig tree is a metaphor for the destiny of the Temple leadership, given the sharp tone of the debate between Jesus and the chief priests (read Matthew chapters 21 to 25 as a single unit).
Ironically, Jesus uses the barren tree to teach an unexpected lesson to the disciples. He tells them, Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. (Mt 21:21) Jesus turns the story into a metaphor of faith, rather than one about the alleged hubris of Jesus, as some historical critical scholars have alleged.
In Mark, the account is different only to the extent that the fig tree withers the day after Jesus curses it. (Mk 11:20-25)
The most unique account is contained in Luke. In Matthew and Mark, the account occurs, clearly in the spring season, and after Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover. Luke’s account has no basis in Matthew or Mark – it is a completely different event. Here is the full account:
And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. (So) cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.'” Luke 13:6-9
As is the case in the other two stories, the fig tree is abnormally barren. Jesus does not hesitate to use obvious examples of bounty (the fig tree) to point out that, in this particular case, the tree is atypically unproductive. In this parable Jesus teaches that the unproductive tree should first be watered and fertilized before deciding whether or not to destroy it. It is also given a year to recover. If the tree fails to recover, then the gardener advises, “you may cut it down.”
Among all the Gospel accounts and parables, this Lucan parable is one of the starkest examples in the New Testament that Christ expects a person of faith “to bear fruit.” On the other hand, the parable says that the tree expected to bear fruit should be cultivated. But, assuming it is cultivated and fails to bear fruit, its destiny is the ash heap.
As Christians, I think we can take this admonishment in stride. If we believe, and we operate on the basis of faith and trust in Christ, then our actions inevitably will bear fruit. On the other hand, if we do not act on the basis of faith, hope and charity, then our conduct will, eventually, come to naught.