NOTE: One of Geronda Ephraim’s spiritual children in New York, Andreas K., has a fig tree in his backyard. He says that Geronda Ephraim did the sign of the cross over it and blessed it to grow fruit. He says it has been fruitful every year since then. He also claims it is a miracle since it is scientifically impossible for fig trees to grow in New York due to the winter. Interestingly, many New Yorkers have been successful with growing fig tree in their backyards for years. Unfortunately the harsh winter of 2014 killed a large majority of them: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/13/nyregion/a-fig-tree-dies-in-brooklyn-and-in-other-boroughs.html?_r=0
One of the more infamous passages in the gospels involves Jesus cursing of a fig tree for not having any fruit for him despite the fact that it wasn’t even the season for fruit. What sort of petulant individual would deliver a gratuitous, arbitrary curse? Why would this be Jesus only miracle in the environs of Jerusalem? In reality the incident is meant as a metaphor for something larger.
Mark isn’t trying to tell his audience that Jesus was angered at not having figs to eat this would be very strange, given that he would have known that it was far too early in the year for that. Instead, Jesus is making a larger point about Jewish religious traditions. Specifically: it was not the time for Jewish leaders to bear fruit, and therefore they would be cursed by God never to bear any fruit ever again.
Thus, instead of merely cursing and killing a lowly fig tree, Jesus is saying that Judaism itself is cursed and will die off dry up at the roots, as a later passage explains when the disciples see the tree the next day (in Matthew, the tree dies immediately).
WHEN DID THE FIG TREE DIE?
It died immediately. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! (Matthew 21:19-20)
It didn’t didn’t die until the next morning. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. … And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. (Mark 11:13-14, 20-21)
WHY DID JESUS CURSE THE FIG TREE?
There is quite a diversity of Patristic interpretation on that point.
Synaxarion: On great and holy Monday we commemorate the fig tree that was cursed by the Lord and then withered…Likening the synagogue of the Jews to the fig tree barren of spiritual fruit, with a curse Christ makes it wither. Let us flee such a fate.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373): “The owner of the fig tree did not obey the law but spurned it. Our Lord came and found that there was nothing left on it, so he cursed it, lest its owner eat from it again, since he had left nothing for the orphan and widows…
He cursed the fig tree and it shriveled up to show them the power of his divinity, so that by means of this action near at hand which they could see, they might believe that which was to come. Because Jerusalem had not accepted the law, he cursed the fig tree, so that there might no longer be fruit on it, according to its laws…
He sought fruit from the fig tree at an inopportune time, that it might be a symbol of one who had deceitfully withheld the fruits of the law at the opportune time. …. he showed that it was Jerusalem that he was reproaching, for he had sought love in her, but she had despised the fruit of repentence….
It was because the time of his suffering was near, and, lest it be thought the he was captured because he was unable to free himself, he cursed the fig tree, that it might be be a sign for his friends, and a miracle for his enemies. He showed in advance, therefore, by means of a living plant which he caused to wither, that he would have been able to destroy his crucifiers with a word. ”
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386): “Remember at the time of the sin of Adam and Eve they clothed themselves—with what? Fig leaves. That was their first act after the fall. So now Jesus is making the same figure of the fig tree the very last of his wondrous signs. Just as he was headed toward the cross, he cursed the fig tree–not every fig tree, but that one alone for its symbolic significance–saying, ‘May no one ever eat fruit of you again.’. In this way the curse laid upon Adam and Eve was being reserved. For they had clothed themselves with fig leaves.” [Catechetical Lectures 13]
St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430): “That by withering the fig tree Jesus is in effect saying to us, I have no delight in the withering away of this tree. By doing so I want to convey to you that I am not acting absurdly but for a lesson you may take more seriously. It is not on this literal tree that I have inflicted punishment. Rather, I have made you fear, whoever you are who considers this matter, that you should not fail Christ when He is hungry and that you might hope to be in the coming season of fruit than in the preparatory season of leaves.” [Sermon 39]
St. Isidore of Pelusium (d. 450): “The tree which caused the transgression of Adam and Eve was this fig tree, the leaves whereof the transgressors used to cover themselves. Hence, since it had not suffered this fate originally, it was withered by Christ in His love for mankind, lest it any longer bear fruit that would be the cause of sin.”
Saint Gregory the Great (d. 604): “The figs which the Lord had sought were the fruit of the synagogue, which had the leaves of the laws, but not the fruit of works. For the creator of all things could not be ignorant that the fig tree had no fruit. That was something anyone might have known, since it was not the time of figs” [Epistle XXXIX, to Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria]