I was handing out gospel tracts in the financial district of New York City when an Orthodox Jewish man stopped to tell me, “You shouldn’t believe in Jesus. Jesus was an ill-tempered man.” He certainly had my attention so I asked him to explain what he meant. He proceeded to recount the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.
Was Jesus being unreasonable about the fig tree?
That Orthodox Jewish man is not the only one to misunderstand these Gospel accounts in Matthew 21 and Mark 11. British philosopher Bertrand Russell comments, “This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.” *
Even Christian scholars disagree on the meaning of this story. Some argue about whether or not Jesus could have reasonably expected figs on the tree (Alfred Edersheim says ‘yes’) whereas many others claim the fig tree is symbolic of the faithless nation of Israel.
I would like to suggest an altogether different meaning. First, let’s dispense with the notion that Jesus was angry and frustrated with the tree. This is the same Jesus who turned water into wine, who fed five thousand-plus people with five loaves of bread and two fish. If Jesus had been so hungry for figs He could have produced them miraculously. As for interpreting this as a curse on Israel, that seems to me to take a very dangerous liberty with God’s intentions, affections, and promises – especially since Jesus equates His curse of the fig tree and the resulting withering of the tree as a demonstration of faith! (Mt.21:21)
The key to the story is the context
I believe the key to the story is its context; the fig tree episode comes right after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, sandwiched between two visits to the Temple. In fact, I see the Temple and all it represented as central to this passage.
God had ordained the Temple to be a place where He would meet with His people, hear their prayers and forgive their sins. But all that was about to change. When Jesus pronounced that curse, He wasn’t coming out with a string of angry profanity. He was pointing to the judgment of God.
Judgment may be hard to bear, but without it there can be no justice. In fact, without God’s judgment, there can be no true redemption. Jesus understood that – which is why He was about to go to the cross and bear that very judgment in our place. Forgiveness would no longer be mediated through animal sacrifices performed by human priests. Salvation would be secured once for all through the eternal priesthood of Messiah Himself.
It was because God desired mercy that He provided sacrifice.
As the cursed fig tree would no longer be a source of food, so the Temple would no longer be the place for redemption. After all, God never desired sacrifices, but mercy (Hos.6:6). It was because God desired mercy that He provided sacrifice. The whole sacrificial system was pointing to Jesus’ sacrifice. His sacrifice did not merely symbolize God’s means of redemption but actually satisfied His righteous judgment. At that point, the animal sacrifices, portents or placeholders for something greater, were no longer necessary.
And like the animal sacrifices pointed to the only sacrifice that could truly atone for our sin, the brick and mortar of the Temple symbolized the place that God wants to have in our hearts. It was never a building that God desired, but to be in the midst of His people where they would know and worship Him.
How do we respond to God's mercy?
No, Jesus wasn’t being ill-tempered when He pronounced a curse on the fig tree. He was announcing both the judgment and mercy of God. Aren’t you grateful for God’s mercy through Jesus and His sacrifice? What better way to give thanks at this season than to be merciful to others as He’s been merciful to us – and to make whatever sacrifices He asks of us in order for others to know His mercy, too.
*From “Why I am not a Christian,” a talk Russell gave in 1927, which also was published as an essay.
David Brickner is also an author, public speaker and avid hiker. Find out more about David, his writings, speaking schedule and possible availability to speak at your church.