In the morning, as he 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. Matthew 21:18-19
By guest contributor, Todd Hansen
In my quest to develop deeper affection for Jesus, I stumble over stories like this one. On the face of it, this looks like a petulant Messiah using his divine power to snuff out a plant that happened not to have fruit when he was hungry. So he zaps the tree, and it dies – this kind of impulsive anger is no better than my behavior when I feel wronged in rush-hour traffic and cut somebody off. Isn’t Jesus better than this?
Digging deeper, we find that there is great tenderness in this event, which Jesus uses to show His disciples what is unfolding.
It is always genuine and always exciting that the scriptures tell an intentional story about an intentional Savior. There are no accidental or random events recorded – everything has meaning that’s deeper and more faceted as we study and meditate on it, and this story is no exception.
The incident falls between two passages in Matthew that are unflinchingly condemning of Israel’s leaders: One of the temple-cleansings, where he confronts the chief priests and scribes about the sanctity of the temple, and one where he was confronted by the priests and elders who challenged his authority. In this context, Jesus is showing his disciples, who are on the road with him, his power over all things, including fig trees and chosen nations.
Fig trees, it turns out, develops their fruit before their leaves. So, when the traveling band saw the roadside tree from a distance and saw that it had leafs, it would have been reasonable to assume that it had already produced fruit. But the truth was that the show of leaves was not evidence of fruit. Sadly, the example of Israel’s showy temple ritual without the fruit of repentance and godly righteousness could not be plainer. When Jesus causes the tree to wither, he is showing his followers that fruit matters and that a fruit tree that doesn’t produce fruit is only good for firewood, no matter how green the leaves are.
When Jesus had entered Jerusalem a couple of days before this, Luke tells us, he openly wept over the city – knowing that its destruction was coming, knowing that the welcoming crowds would soon call for the execution of their Messiah. This is a tender-hearted Savior, who, although he has personally ordained the events that would soon unfold, wishes that they weren’t necessary. Every word and every action, including the ex-fig tree, is a window into a heart that is overflowing with holy, permanent, unconditional love. Loved like this, my only reasonable response is grateful love in return.