Jesus Behaving Badly: The Fig Tree Incident

It’s hard to act mature all of the time… even for the Son of God.  The gospels contain a number of incidents in which Jesus gets annoyed or angry.  Today, we are going to look at two versions of a story about how Jesus gets pissed off and kills a fig tree.  I don’t want to be too hard on Jesus, because he was hungry and I know how cranky I get, when I’m starving, but nonetheless, shouldn’t we expect better behavior from someone who is supposed to be God in human form?
In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up.  The disciples were amazed when they saw this and asked, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?”Matt 21:18-20 (NLT)

Let me give Jesus credit for being better behaved than Yahweh.  He keeps his genocidal rage under control (at least until the book of Revelation) but he still has his moments when the smiling mask slips, and his very human-like anger and frustration show through.  I guess men just have trouble inventing gods which aren’t made in their own image, to some degree or another.

In anger management classes, you will be told that anger comes from the frustration of have one’s goals blocked.  When we get angry, we sometimes take that anger out on inanimate objects - kicking them, smashing, or cursing them.  Jesus exhibits these very human traits.  He is hungry and goes over to the fig tree for a snack, is ticked off when there are no figs, and uses his magic god-powers to kill that stupid tree.  If he can’t have figs from it, then nobody else will, ever again.  I suppose killing a tree is preferable to killing a person, so we can be grateful that Jesus didn’t murder one of his more annoying disciples.  But, Jesus is relatable – right?  I mean, it’s like when you put your money in the vending machine, and your candy bar gets stuck, dangling just on the edge of the spiral wire.  Your reaction?  You’re gonna want to kick that damn machine, aren’t you!

For someone who could reportedly predict future events and know what was in the hearts of men, Jesus surely should have known that he wasn’t going to find any figs on the tree.  Oh, well, probably just sloppy writing on Matthew’s part.

Christian theologians have developed a number of tap dances to try and deal with this troublesome passage.  One is to say “The story is so unflattering, that it must be true.  Why else would such a silly story be included in the Bible?”  Disregarding of course, that what seems silly to us now, a person two thousand years ago might have accepted without questioning.  Another tactic is to claim that the whole thing was a charade; play-acting to teach a spiritual lesson.  The fig tree represents Israel… blah, blah, blah.”  This explanation ignores the fact that the author explicitly states that Jesus went to the tree because he was hungry.  There is no warrant for saying that his intention was to teach a Sunday School lesson.  As a matter of fact, Jesus did use this as a ‘teachable moment’ in verse 21:
And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.

So, Jesus spins his temper tantrum into a lesson on the power of faith, and hurling mountains into the sea.  Nothing at all about the fig tree representing Israel, but hey, maybe the theologians know more about what Jesus was thinking, than the gospel writers did.

But wait, there’s more…

Just like movie DVDs sometimes include alternate cuts; the Bible gives us two versions of the fig tree incident.

The same story is also found in Mark’s gospel.  Scholarly consensus holds that Mark was the earliest gospel written, and  there is plenty of evidence that Matthew and Luke recycled and tinkered with Marcan materials, to create content for their own gospels:

(Thanks to Hunter Morrow for bringing this video to my attention)
With that in mind, let’s look at the original version of the story, rather than Matthew’s remake. 

The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it.Mark 11:12-14 (NLT)
I have indicated the first important difference with bold text.  That’s right folks, Jesus – who supposedly invented fig trees, being God incarnate, seems either woefully ignorant about when exactly fig season is, or knows it is the wrong time of year, but gets pissy anyway.  Either way, it reflects poorly on him, which is perhaps why Matthew’s gospel edits this line out, when borrowing from Mark.

Also notable, is that the fig tree does not wither at this time, nor does Jesus deliver his mountain-tossing faith sermonette.  Instead (in verses 15 through 19) he trots off to Jerusalem, to engage in a much bigger, more violent tantrum.  He goes to the Temple and kicks over the tables of the sellers of religious books and music CDs, and T-shirts, and smashes the cash registers and credit card readers… or at least the Jewish equivalent thereof.  He whips people and animals and chases them out.

It’s not until the next morning that the withered fig tree is discovered.  Jesus then delivers his faith talk, along with the added lie that you can have whatever you pray for, as long as you believe.

 The Brick Testament

The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”  Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.  But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too. 
Mark 11:20-25 (NLT)

The inescapable conclusion is that the gospel writers felt comfortable playing around with details and timetables of the stories they passed off as true.  The writer of Matthew’s gospel was willing to help Jesus out by censoring material which made him look foolish and petty.  This sort of creative tinkering happens repeatedly in the parallel accounts contained in Mark, Matthew and Luke.  While it is interesting to watch how the stories were reshaped for each writer’s purposes, it hardly inspires confidence in the claim that the gospels are inspired, truthful accounts. 

Even less inspiring, is the Jesus portrayed here; frustrated and cursing a tree.  Frustration is a sign of weakness, not of an all-powerful loving creator.  In the magic world of the Bible, snakes and donkeys can sometimes talk.  I’d like to imagine that if that withered fig tree could have spoken, it might have said “Jesus Christ, grow up already!”

Written by J. M. Green