12The next morning as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13He noticed a fig tree in full leaf a little way off, so he went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leaves because it was too early in the season for fruit. 14Then Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat your fruit again!” And the disciples heard him say it.15When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace. 17He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”18When the leading priests and teachers of religious law heard what Jesus had done, they began planning how to kill him. But they were afraid of him because the people were so amazed at his teaching.19That evening Jesus and the disciples left the city.20The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it had withered from the roots up. 21Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!”22Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. 23I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. 24I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. 25But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.” Matthew 21:12-21
It is early and the crowds of yesterday have not yet returned. In the quiet, I watch with the disciples as Jesus approaches a leafy fig tree a short distance away. He is hungry and he is hoping to enjoy some of its fruit. But it has no fruit to offer.
In what seems like an uncharacteristic response, Jesus curses the lonely tree. His strong words seem unwarranted and they confuse me. But do I dare question this moment? And yet how can I not? Because when we pass by the same tree the next morning, it has withered and died.
It seems incongruous, this response from Jesus to a fig tree. It isn’t even the time for it to bear fruit. Or is it?
The tree is full of lush, green leaves. Yes, it is out of season, but there are the leaves. This alone indicates that there may be fruit. But Jesus is not as interested in the tree and its fruit, or lack of it, as he is in the fruit, or lack of it, of his followers.
Jesus’ response to the fig tree is not so incongruous after all. He sees a teaching moment and he takes it. He has, after all, come to Jerusalem to die and to redeem. The shouts of celebration, the leafy green response of the crowds, will soon turn to demands for his death. Jerusalem will wither. Hope will die.
Religion will conquer faith. In the coming days, as Jesus prepares for the Passover meal here, his run-ins with the Pharisees and religious leaders will only increase.
Jesus knows the stakes are high. He knows that the disciples need to understand what is about to happen. So he uses a lonely fig tree that is blooming out of season to make his point.
Especially if I take a moment to examine myself, my heart, my motivations. Am I bearing fruit? Or am I simply outwardly playing a good part, seeming to bear fruit from a distance, but withering in my faith upon closer examination? Am I a Pharisee? Am I more religious than faith-filled?
If Jesus approached me, drew near to me, expecting fruit, what would he find?