On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.
As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
On the day following the fanfare of His arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus cursed a fig tree. It is a curious detail, to be sure. Why should He care about a fig tree with so much in front of Him? Jesus was indeed hungry; however, He has a way of turning the table of our expectations with seemingly mundane things. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The fig tree is charged with meaning that stretches all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve—God’s image bearing stewards of creation—fell for the terrible lie that it would be better to know good and evil for themselves than to know, trust, and love God. They were ashamed and covered themselves with fig leaves (Genesis 3:6-7). In time, the evil in the garden metastasized to worship in the temple such that the prophet Jeremiah said, “Everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely” (Jeremiah 8:10). And yet, “They were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jeremiah 8:12).
By the time Jesus walked into the temple, “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered” (Jeremiah 8:13). The official religious leaders at the top (the priests) and the de-facto moral authorities on the ground (the Pharisees) were involved in an elaborate worship system centered on the temple. The place for God to dwell was used to accrue power, privilege, and prestige through the extortion of the very people God intended to bless. For all its architectural splendor and religious pomp-and-circumstance, the Jerusalem temple and its system of worship was corrupt, condemned, and ready for destruction. Jesus turned the fig tree—fruitless, cursed, and withered to its roots—into a dramatically subversive sign of the kingdom of God.
The one who cursed the fig tree is the very man who hung a few days later cursed on a tree. Jesus was cursed on the cross so that the blessing of the Spirit of life might flow to those who “have faith in God” (Galatians 3:13-14, Mark 11:22). “Though the fig tree should not blossom,” the prophet says, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17, 18).