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Question corner: Why would Jesus curse a fig tree?

Q: Why would Jesus curse a fig tree that was out of season for not producing fruit?

A: The Fathers of the Church taught that sacred Scripture could be understood on several different levels, and I think that may be the best approach to understanding this particular episode in Jesus’s life.

The story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is found in both the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 21:18-22) and Mark (Mark 11:12-25). In both versions of the story, Jesus and his disciples had been traveling when Jesus felt hungry and so approached a fig tree. But finding no fruit on the tree, Jesus curses the tree, saying: “May no one ever eat of your fruit again!” And to his disciples’ astonishment, the fig tree withers and dies at Jesus’s command. Mark’s Gospel gives us the additional details that “it was not the time for figs” as an explanation for why the tree was fruitless in the first place.

I think it is possible to engage with this Gospel on just the face-value level of the basic narrative. We know that Jesus was not only fully divine, but also fully human, “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). And we know from the Gospels that Jesus had human bodily needs; for example, he would become tired and need to rest or be thirsty and ask for a drink. Jesus also had human emotions, becoming sad at the death of a friend or even angry at times.

Therefore, I don’t think it would be wrong to see this episode as one more illustration of Jesus’s humanity – i.e., Jesus was hungry and then disappointed at the lack of figs. But even while this passage demonstrates his humanity, what seems to have impressed the disciples is how it demonstrated Jesus’s divine power over nature. St. Matthew’s account has the fig tree withering as soon as Jesus curses it, and goes on to say: “When the disciples saw this, they were amazed and said, ‘How was it that the fig tree withered immediately?’” And so I imagine it made sense for the Evangelists to include this story in their Gospels alongside the retelling of some of Jesus’s other miracles.

But it is also possible to see a deeper prophetic meaning in Jesus’s action here. That is, Jesus was showing forth by this visible sign the necessity of “bearing good fruit” in our lives of faith, meaning that our knowledge of God and our religious practices must actually lead to our living lives of virtue and sincere love of God and of our neighbor.

We can see several “clues” to this deeper meaning in other places in Scripture. For instance, in St. Mark’s account, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is broken into two parts. First, Jesus observes the tree’s fruitlessness and curses it, and then he comes upon money changers in the Temple turning a “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves” (Mark 11:17). After Jesus and his disciples leave the Temple, they pass by the fig tree, and it is only then that the disciples notice it has died. The clear implication is that the money-changers, as those who would use the things of God for their own material gain, were like a tree that bore no good fruit.

And while Luke’s Gospel does not include a parallel account where Jesus is recalled as having cursed a fig tree, St. Luke does record a similar parable. In Luke 13:6-9, a gardener resolves to give a fruitless fig tree one last chance before cutting it down. The moral of this parable is that God will be patient and merciful in waiting for his people to be fruitful; but that we must also be mindful of our final judgment on the last day if we still fail to be fruitful despite the grace God has given us.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to