Do you remember that strange story in the Gospels where Jesus had a personal vendetta against a plant? If you’ve ever done landscaping before, then you know it’s possible to have very strong hatred for the weeds and plants that invade your garden. It’s even a struggle to keep from cursing at those weeds–probably not the most Christlike thing to do!
But why did Jesus get so upset at a fig tree with no fruit? If you read the account in Mark, he makes it abundantly clear that “it was not the season for figs” (Mark 11:13). That seems pretty unfair. Consider the account from Matthew’s gospel:
In the morning, as [Jesus] was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
The Morning After…
This is encounter with the fig tree came the morning after the triumphal entry. Riding a donkey, he was celebrated by his Galilean companions outside the gates of Jerusalem. They heralded him as “the Son of David”; however, the city of Jerusalem stood by distraught asking, “Who is this?!” Jesus rode straight into the heart of Jerusalem–the temple–and overturned the tables in the courtyard, sat down and healed the lame and blind, and received the praises of young children.
In Matthew 21, the triumphal entry is not Jesus’s great triumph in Jerusalem, it is his celebratory triumph outside Jerusalem. When he enters the city, they are not excited, they are “stirred up.” If you recall, all the way back in Matthew 3, the last time men entered Jerusalem proclaiming one to be “born King of the Jews”, the city did not handle it well. In fact, a killing spree ensued as Herod sought to eliminate this newborn king.
Jerusalem did not welcome Jesus, but found him to be an unplanned disruption to business as usual. John the Baptist had come to prepare the way of the Lord and to make a straight path for him; however, the Jerusalem establishment had rejected John’s baptism. So, when the Lord Jesus himself came down the path through the city gates, we should not be surprised that they were unprepared to receive him.
The Fig Tree at Hand.
The first and perhaps most startling thing about this incident with the fig tree is that it is the only miracle of judgment Jesus ever performs in Matthew’s gospel. Every other miracle brings healing and salvation, but this miracle is one of condemnation and judgment.
Here was this green leafy fig tree by the side of the road. From a distance, it looks healthy. But as soon as Jesus draws near to it, and he looks beneath the leaves, he realizes that there is no fruit on the tree. The glossy leaves are all for show. There’s nothing fruitful about this tree; there’s nothing but big, showy, worthless leaves. A fruit-bearing tree is of no value if it doesn’t bear fruit.
Matthew 21 is the first time Jesus draws near to Jerusalem in the entire book of Matthew. It’s the first time he has gotten a closer look at exactly what is going on in this glossy, religious city. Jerusalem and the Temple were always far off in the distance, with bright, shiny green leaves. It looked healthy from a distance. However, when Jesus finally draws near to the city of God, to the center of Jewish religion, to the Temple, what does he find? He looks under those big green leaves and finds absolutely nothing. In Jerusalem, the place of God’s temple, Jesus should have found bountiful fruit of repentance and righteousness–instead he finds nothing. The cursing of the fig tree is not about a fig tree. It’s about cursing the fruitless religion in Jerusalem.
Fig Leaves, Loincloths…Sound Familiar?
If you remember, fig leaves were the first thing to come between God and man. The first time man sinned against God, here was the first thing he did: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7). Adam and Eve used fig leaves to hide their sin.
When Jesus comes to Jerusalem, he doesn’t find men and women with repentant hearts and truly righteous lives. He finds a bunch of men and women running around with big fig leaves trying to hide their sin from God. The city that was supposed to be prepared when Jesus came walking in was instead hiding its sins with fig leaves refusing to come out to Jesus. Jesus is not pleased. He curses the fig tree. He curses the city of Jerusalem, the fig tree with big leaves and no fruit. He curses them in their fruitless religion.
Derek Webb sings, “We’ve traded naked and unashamed for a better place to hide, for a righteous mask, a suit of fig leaves, and lies.” This is exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. The chief priests, the elders, the Pharisees–those who knew the law best–should have recognized their need for a Savior most. However, when their Savior came riding in on a donkey, they plotted how to dispose of him.
Jesus cursed the Temple cult with its leaders because he was building a new temple–one not made with human hands. He turns to his disciples after the cursing of the fig tree, and he sees these twelve pitiful men, and he remains determined to build them into his temple. This is what Peter means when he says, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the eyes of God chosen and precious, you yourselves are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
The cursing of the fig tree is about destroying what separated man and God. It was about the rejection of self-righteous religion. It was about the building of a new temple. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16–“Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in y’all?”