When I was a boy, I always found this story about Jesus quite disturbing. There are renditions of this story given by Mark (11:12) and Matthew. Here is how Matthew tells it:
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Obviously, there are many exegetical attempts to see this story as an allegory. Some scholars say that it was showing Jesus’ power over Nature. Others believe that this is an indication that the Jewish people were not bearing any fruit, and that the advent of Christianity would supercede the covenant of the Jews with God. In the story itself, Matthew and Mark have Jesus using the occasion to teach about the power of prayer: if one has enough faith, one can not only wither fig trees, but move mountains!
So much for exegesis. I wonder, however, if we could move beyond allegory, and see the story as a simple report of what happened. From this perspective, it seems to me entirely plausible that Jesus was just having a bad day! Maybe he didn’t sleep well the night before, and he was grumpy. He could have had a headache, or GI distress. If he had the power to wither the tree, he surely had the power to conjure a couple of figs.
Some people might find this interpretation irreverent, but I find it deeply consoling. If one of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time, a truly holy person of amazing depth and power, could have off days, then perhaps my times of missing the mark are not worthy of absolute condemnation. I quoted Marcus Aurelius in another post to the effect that when I am driven off course I should not become disgusted with myself, or give up, or lose patience, but return to the best in myself and love that to which I return.
I believe that owning our human imperfection is the gateway to compassion. If we can realize that we are standing on clay feet, we might be less likely to put ourselves above our fellow “human merely beings” as e.e. cummings has it. Most of us, I think, stumble through myriad quotidian failings laced with a few whoppers of a lifetime. If we can look without excuse at what we are capable of thinking or doing during our bad days, perhaps we would be better able to embrace our common humanity.
Finally, I wonder what might have happened the day after the events described in the Gospels. I like to think that Jesus had the grace to return to the fig tree and feel compassion for its withered heart. I can see him asking its forgiveness and breathing fresh life into its branches. This is a man I can admire and do my best to emulate: a man who can be irritable and selfish, but return again and again to his true and holy nature and do his best to set the world right and to reclaim his place in the family of things.