Lessons From a Fig Tree

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One of the favourite questions people ask is why Jesus cursed the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22). I dug up the notes from the Life of Christ class I took in seminary many years ago, hunted up the section having to do with the fig tree and had a “duh” moment.

Context is vitally important—no less so in this famous story. Jesus approaches the fig tree because He is hungry, only to discover that there is nothing by leaves on the tree, And we know the rest. But we seldom focus on the answer Jesus gave to Peter when he asked why the fig tree had withered so quickly (Mark 11:19-25).

In the story in Mark, the writer records that Jesus’ first words in response to the question were, “Have faith in God.” Jesus’ message was that only faith in God could do the impossible: like wither a fig tree, or move a mountain. Jesus says, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22). I’m sure the Lord wasn't expecting the disciples to go around moving mountains or blasting trees—no matter how strong their faith was. He never used His power frivolously and He wouldn't want them to abuse the power He granted them. The point was that believing faith could do the impossible.

But then the Mark account adds a condition to Jesus’ message. (Matthew includes this condition as an addition to the Lord’s Prayer given on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:14, 15) Mark writes: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you yours sins” (11:25). In other words, to have this kind of powerful faith, you must not harbour malice in your heart. According to Dr. W. Gordon Brown: “The point that He makes of the cursing of the tree is the negative power of faith.”

Taking this further, I see Jesus cursing this fig tree not because it denied Him a snack (it wasn’t fig season) but because He wanted His disciples to ask the question so that He could talk to them about prayer and faith, about forgiving so that their prayers can be answered. The Temple had ceased to be "a house of prayer" and had turned into a farmers' market because the Jews had lost their faith and turned their belief in God into an empty religious ceremony (Matthew 21:12, 13).

Following on the heels of this, the religious leaders questioned the Lord’s authority. For them the message of the fig tree was a different one altogether. In the two parables that followed they confrontation with the Lord (Matthew 21:23-27), Jesus likens them to the fig tree that not only didn’t produce fruit even in season, but would never produce fruit. Because they were all "show" and no substance, the blessing of God would pass from Israel, as God’s chosen people, to the Gentiles out of whom He would build His church. For the disciples this transition from the Jews to the Gentiles would require a huge amount of faith as they struggled to understand that God’s message of salvation and blessing was for ALL men, not just a select few.


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