It wasn’t the fig tree’s fault — Matthew 21:18–22

The King’s judgements

One thing to remember when reading through Matthew’s Gospel is that things are not necessarily consecutive, Matthew was writing a gospel, not a history, but they are carefully placed so that the stories that run together affect each other. The previous passage had children praising Jesus because of his miracles but the chief priests rejected Jesus despite the evidence of his healings. That story continues here…

A branch of a fig tree with unripe fruit.
Free image from Max Pixel

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 marvelled, 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.”

Matthew 21:18-22 ESVUK

The fig harvest happens in the summer in the middle east, from June to the end of September although there are late fruiting varieties from Syria and Lebanon that fruit in November and December.

Jesus and his disciples are outside Jerusalem and it is close to Passover. Passover is a solar-lunar festival taking place on the first full moon after the vernal equinox, so late March to mid-April on our calendar. Figs were not available at any time that Passover fell.

On the face of it, Jesus’ actions here seem petulant, taking it out on a fig tree because there were no figs out of season. Why would he curse a tree when that same power could give it life and figs? What is significant is where this story is placed in the Gospel. In the Bible the fig tree is used as a symbol for the nations of Israel or Judah. (See Jeremiah 8:13).

Matthew uses the cursing of the fig tree as the filling in a sandwich between two encounters with the chief priests in a way that not only joins those two events together but adds to them. The cursing of the fig tree is about the chief priests rejecting Jesus. It is an acted out parable, as were the entry into Jerusalem and turning the money changers out of the temple. Within a generation the Jews would have destroyed their own temple by accident. Roman soldiers entered Jerusalem in AD 70 and the jews set fires to impede the invading soldier’s progress. The fires got out of hand and the temple destroyed.

The withering of the fig tree is a sign that the time of the temple and of the chief priests has ended. Even before they have executed the god they worship when he is present on Earth. The justice of God is shown in this curseing. The religious leaders who have replaced God with dogma are cursed, their time has come and will be no more. The nation of Judea has become spiritually empty because of the spiritual bankruptcy of their leaders.

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