12On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
25“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
Jerusalem is crowded with people who have come for the Passover. Whatever the Roman rule meant in regards to personal freedom and oppression, the “Pax Romana” or “Peace of Rome” meant that people could travel freely across the then-known world. And the Jewish people who lived around the world returned to Jerusalem. And so, since Jesus had friends in Bethany (the home of Mary & Martha) he and the disciples returned to Bethany in the evenings, coming back into Jerusalem to preach and teach in the temple courts each day.
On the “next day”, Monday, when they were coming back into town, Jesus noticed a fig tree, and since he was hungry, he went to look for fruit. Unfortunately, as it was not fig season, there was no fruit. And Jesus cursed the fig tree – now, Jesus would know when it was season for figs, and when not, so this is not about the tree – this is a parable. Jesus is making a point for the disciples to understand.
Mark interrupts the fig tree story with the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, which he places, not just after Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but on the following day, Monday. Following the temple cleansing, they all go back out of the city to rest in Bethany, but the following morning, the disciples notice the fig tree; it has withered. They remember Jesus’ words. The placement of this story around the temple cleansing is not accidental. The fig tree represents the temple system, which is no longer producing fruit for God. Perhaps because its season is done; perhaps because its leaders have lost sight of what the temple was always supposed to be – a way for God to be among them, a way for the people to stay in touch with God. Because it no longer bore fruit, the temple system was ending.
But Jesus also adds an additional teaching to the lesson. The disciples seem surprised that the tree withered overnight. They who have seen Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead, calm the storms and walk on water, are surprised to see a fig tree wither? But Jesus takes their surprise and teaches a lesson about prayer. He tells them to believe that whatever they ask in prayer will be given them, even to moving mountains. Faith is the power behind prayer – if they believe, then prayers are answered.
Does that mean that prayer turns God into a giant vending machine, giving us what we want? Frankly, no; that is not at all what Jesus means, as his own prayers later that week would show. But in order to pray, we must have faith, and we must believe that God hears our prayers – though the answer may sometimes be “no”. Prayer, after all, is not about asking for this and that; prayer is about maintaining a relationship with God, talking with God. Even when times go bad – and it is not the season for fruit – we can pray, and God is still there with us.
But, Jesus adds a caveat – we must forgive others, so that our Father in heaven can forgive us. And so, prayer also involves examining our own hearts, and ridding ourselves of anger and hatred and resentment, by forgiving. Then, with pure hearts, we can reach out to our Father and He will forgive us.