The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree
18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 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.
20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Last week’s reading — Matthew 21:14-17 — ended with Jesus leaving bustling Jerusalem during His last Passover and retreating to the peace and quiet of nearby Bethany.
John MacArthur says that He stayed with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. A few days before, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The people spread the news quickly, which accounts for the rejoicing crowds who greeted Him on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
When Jesus reached the temple He was filled with righteous anger as He cleansed it of greedy moneychangers and sacrifice swindlers. He then restored it to His Father’s house by healing the blind and the lame (Matthew 21:14-17).
In this continuing account, He returned to Jerusalem from Bethany with His disciples. He was hungry (verse 18). Even if Martha and Mary had given Him breakfast, He knew He was facing death by the end of the week, so it was a monumentally difficult time which was probably taking a lot out of Him.
He went up to a fig tree by the roadside in the hope that it would have fruit, something He could eat (verse 19). As it had only leaves, He cursed it and, instantly it died. A fig tree bears fruit before it has leaves, so one with leaves would imply it was still bearing fruit.
This is more than an account of Jesus’s hunger. This is an allegory for the curse to come to the Jews for their unbelief and hard hearts. Remember that the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD. No replacement was ever built.
The fig tree with leaves and no fruit symbolises the Jewish people of His day. The hierarchy were hypocrites, with one set of rules for themselves and an onerous one for ordinary Jews. The religious leaders felt that Jesus threatened their prestige and power. Instead of seeing Him as their long-awaited Messiah, foretold in so many places in Scripture, they plotted to kill Him. They looked religious — just as the fig tree looked fruitful, covered in leaves as it was. However, just as the leaders were devoid of faith and dead in sin, so the fig tree was devoid of fruit. Under the principles of divine judgement, both would have to go.
The ordinary people were no better. How many thousands followed Him to be amazed? How many followed Him and came to believe He was their Saviour? Very few.
Matthew Henry explains this illustration of divine judgement (emphases mine):
all he did was for the benefit and comfort of his friends, none for the terror or punishment of his enemies but now, at last, to show that all judgment is committed to him, and that he is able not only to save, but to destroy, he would give a specimen of the power of his wrath and curse yet this not on any man, woman, or child, because the great day of his wrath is not yet come, but on an inanimate tree that is set forth for an example …
The destruction of the temple, which came from the hands of the Romans, demonstrated divine lasting judgement:
Never any good came from them (except the particular persons among them that believe), after they rejected Christ[;] they became worse and worse blindness and hardness happened to them, and grew upon them, till they were unchurched, unpeopled, and undone, and their place and nation rooted up their beauty was defaced, their privileges and ornaments, their temple, and priesthood, and sacrifices, and festivals, and all the glories of their church and state, fell like leaves in autumn. How soon did their fig-tree wither away, after they said, His blood be on us, and our children! And the Lord was righteous in it.
MacArthur says this extended even unto fig trees, a biblical symbol of blessing:
So, the presence of fig trees were the mark of the prosperity of the land. The absence of fig trees, the mark of the judgment of the land. And today there aren’t surely nearly the fig trees there were once. They’ve had to be replanted, you know, that land has been denuded and stripped naked so many, many times that they’re having a reforestation project now to put it back to what it used to be. But it was made naked by so many different conquerors who came in and built all their war machines out of the wood. They stripped the woods bare. And then in one period of Israel’s history, they made a law that every man was taxed according to the number of trees he had on his land. So everybody went out and cut down all their trees. But the fig trees are coming back to the land. Their absence now may be a mark of God’s judgment on that prosperity.
Of course, this extends to political survival and national security:
And they’re in a constant state of vigilance. Life for them is reduced to the basic things, survival and defense.
They’re under a curse…the curse that our Lord pronounced upon them, the curse that Isaiah pronounced upon them, the curse that’s pronounced upon them by God in Deuteronomy, it’s the same thing. You disobey Me, you are under judgment. And they’re under that.
MacArthur has an interesting analysis:
when He comes, just after He’s been inaugurated king, He does two things immediately. First, cleanse the temple; second, curse the tree, and they are monumentally significant things. And if you don’t understand them, you won’t understand why they wanted Him dead.
The first thing, cleansing the temple, was a denunciation of their religion. It was a denunciation of their worship. The second thing, cursing the tree … was a denunciation of them as a nation. So instead of overthrowing their enemies, in a sense He denounces them. And it’s inconceivable to them that their own Messiah could come and condemn them. And that is why they put Him to death. They would have nothing to do with Him and they said it, “We will not have this man to reign over us.” This isn’t our kind of king. He wasn’t like other kings …
So, what you see here are two acts of kingly authority: the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the tree. He has the scepter and He wields it in these ways.
The next series of verses show that the three-year Lectionary editors and compilers made a serious oversight in excluding this passage for three reasons.
First, the disciples were astonished that a leafy tree could die instantly before their eyes (verse 20). Divine judgement is swift, immediate — and effective.
Secondly, Jesus issued a warning about doubt (verse 21) — the oh-so-popular sentiment in Christian circles these days, one which clergy so readily excuse:
if you have faith and do not doubt …
Our Lord Himself told us not to doubt.
Faith without doubt can move mountains, a popular expression in the Jewish world that meant resolving the most insurmountable (!) of problems.
Thirdly, Jesus tells us that God answers prayer coming from faith (verse 22).
We read about the fruits of faith in the New Testament, in both the Gospels and the Epistles. MacArthur explains:
Fruit is ever and always the manifestation of true salvation. And what God is saying here is Israel is a nation with a pretense of religion that is unsaved, unredeemed, lost, cut off from God.
Again, it is essential not to confuse fruit with works. Obeying a checklist of laws will not bring salvation.
Fruit is a spontaneous product of real faith. It’s checking in on a sickly neighbour not because you think you ought to, but because you want to. It’s helping other people because you personally feel the urge to do so. Fruit is praying as if you were talking to a friend several times a day, whether asking for divine grace and assistance or giving thanks for blessings received.
MacArthur explains what Jesus means by faith:
Now let me tell you what He means by this. Faith is not faith in nothing. And faith is not faith in things that you think ought to be, and faith is not faith in you or your ideas or your dreams or your ambitions. Faith is placing your confidence in God. All right? So when it says if you have faith, it doesn’t mean nebulous…”Well, I believe in believing…well, I believe because I believe.” Faith is placing confidence in something you know that is true. It is believing in God as God has revealed Himself …
Having faith is trusting in the revelation of God. In other words, if I know that something is consistent with God’s mind, if I know it is consistent with His will, if I know it is consistent with His purpose, if I know it is consistent with His desire, then I believe that and I can see that come to pass.
Faith should increase as we move through life, just as the tiny mustard seed produces an incredibly large bush the size of a tree:
The faith of a grain of mustard seed is this, a mustard seed’s a small seed that produces what? a very large bush. And the idea is if you have faith that starts small but gets larger and larger and larger and larger, you’re going to see God work in power. That’s what He’s saying. So you start out small and if it doesn’t happen, you don’t say, “Well, I give up…I asked the Lord to do it and He didn’t do it.” But your faith grows and strengthens and strengthens and strengthens …
In other words, the Lord is saying if you believe in God enough to be persistent in your prayers and to start out small and keep praying and keep praying and keep praying, let that faith strengthen and strengthen and strengthen, then God’s going to respond to that.
Too many of us give up on prayer, including some reading this post! MacArthur says:
… some of you are not seeing God work in your life simply because there’s no persistence in your prayer. There’s no continuance in your prayer. There’s no strengthening. You don’t get an answer so you quit. And it’s not mustard seed, it’s something else. Mustard seeds start small, gets big.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, ‘Keep the faith, baby’ was a popular saying. If you liked that paraphrase of St Paul’s verses, then apply it to your prayer life. I promise that you will receive more blessings than you ever imagined.
In closing, the parallel account for this reading is found in Mark 11:12-14, about which I wrote in 2012.
Next time: Matthew 21:23-27