As Jesus enters the city (v8-11) there are many who lay garments and palm-branches upon the road, and both precede and follow him. It is the festival procession, and Jesus is in the midst of it. No doubt many of these are Jesus-associates, people who have heard Jesus’ teaching, witnessed some of the wonders, and are come with him and others from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Others, perhaps, have little clue as to Jesus and his identity and celebrity, but are caught up in the festival celebrations. They cry of vv9-10 is drawn from Psalm 118, one of the Hallel psalms, to be sung at festivals and when going up to the temple. How fitting that here it is used to proclaim, perhaps even unwittingly, the coming Kingdom of David, which is not a line from the Psalm but an expression of the people’s hope for the restoration of the Kingdom. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” refers originally to the worshipper coming up to the temple, but in light of Jesus’ mission takes on new significance, as the Lord himself comes to his people. The passage closes with Jesus entering Jerusalem, and the temple specifically, and “looking around at all things”. Truly the King has come to his own, to inspect and call to account. And yet it is not his time to act, and he withdraws again to Bethany, his base of operations for the Passover week.
When we come into the second half of chapter 11, ranging from v12 onwards, we encounter one of those famous Markan-sandwiches, a simplified chiastic structure of A-B-A, where the central content of B is reflected in the incident of A-A’. So, in this sandwich, A runs vv12-14. It is “the next day”, and Jesus and his disciples are returning from Bethany, their base camp, into Jerusalem for the day, and we are told that Jesus “was hungry”. Note here two things, firstly that the gospels never shrink from plain and unassuming declarations of Jesus’ humanity. And, as a man, he hungers, just as elsewhere he thirsts, is ignorant, he weeps, and all the other things that properly belong to a human being in the created world. Secondly, Jesus turns the occasion of his hunger into a teaching instrument for much greater things. For, not only being hungry, but seeing a fig-tree from afar, having leaves, he approached to discover whether it had also fruit. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History 16.49, tells us “The fig tree is also the only tree whose leaf forms later than its fruit.” So this helps us understand that the fig tree that had leaves should have had fruit, and if it had leaves but no fruit, it was not going to produce fruit. Mark also draws us to this kind of fact, perhaps with less precision, in 13d, introduced by the γὰρ conjunction, that “it was not the season for figs.” A fact, likewise, probably well-known to Jesus.
Some have wondered, and questioned, why then Jesus is so vehement in his cursing of the fig tree, that no one shall eat of it again? First, it should not be denied that as the Son he is Lord of all Creation, and shares equally and fully in the one work of the Triune Godhead to give life and to take it from all things, so that it is no overstepping of his bounds to bring to an end the life of this fig tree, as anything else. Second, this fig tree is barren and so its failure to bring life is also the occasion of its failure to live. Third, then, Jesus takes this occasion presented, that of his hunger and the fig tree’s being there and so, by which to instruct both his disciples then and since. As to the lesson of that teaching, it is better explored when we return to the fig tree after the intervening episode.