Cursing the fig tree
In our passage today, we meet gentle Jesus meek and mild! As if!
Ø He curses a fig tree
Ø He overturns the tables in the temple
So what is going on here? Is Jesus having a bad hair day? He’s hungry. He sees the fig tree. He goes over to get a fig, but there is no fruit. So he zaps the tree.
The setting is significant. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph. He deliberately sets out to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. We saw that last week. He is God's king coming to God's city. He is coming to his throne.
And in these verses what we see is that God’s king comes to God’s city and he finds it wanting.
The fig tree is cursed because it is not bearing fruit. We are told the reason it is not bearing fruit: it is too early on in the season. But it doesn’t change the issue. Jesus is looking for fruit. And if the fruit is not there, then there will come a time when God will act in judgement.
Maybe we think the fig tree gets a raw deal. It is worth remembering this is a fig tree (and it did not have a tree preservation order)! What Jesus is doing here is no different to what any gardener does when they remove a shrub because it is no longer needed.
But Jesus is here acting out a parable.
He has come to God's people. He is looking for fruit. But he does not find fruit.
And as a result, God's judgement is coming on them. Jesus’ cursing the fig tree is his very dramatic way of saying to the people, ‘It is almost too late. The patience of God has finally worn thin. God is going to act in judgement.’
And in case people do not get the message here, Jesus makes it explicitly clear in the parable of the tenants in Mark 12.
The story of the cursed fig tree wraps around the story of the cleansing of the temple. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers and challenges the traders.
The place where people were meant to worship God, where they were meant to enable others to meet with God, has become a place where people worship money, and where people rip each other off. If there was one going to be only one place where Jesus would find good fruit, it would have been in the temple. And what does he find? Exploitation and idolatry.
What are we to make of these verses?
1. Don't think that Jesus is tame.
Philip Yancey writes: “As I studied the life of Christ, one impression about Jesus struck me more forcefully than any other. We have tamed him. The Jesus I learned about as a child was sweet and inoffensive, the kind of person whose lap you'd want to climb on. Someone cuddly with a beard. Indeed, Jesus did have qualities of gentleness and compassion that attracted little children. But Jesus is not tame. They would not have needed to crucify a tame Jesus”
Jesus is the one who loves us, who gave his life for us, who offers us forgiveness and new life. But he is also the incomprehensible Son of God. He is the one who was there before the beginning of time. He is bigger than, beyond, all our concepts and ideas and imagination. He is even beyond the very categories that we use to think: concepts of space and time.
We cannot put him in a box. We approach him with confidence, because he has given us some very precious promises, and because he has backed up his promises by dying and rising again for us. But we also approach him with awe and reverence. He is God; He is the one who made us. He is the one who has every right to destroy us. He is the one who curses a fig tree and it withers from the root. He is the one who announces the judgement of God on the temple. He does not answer to us; we answer to him. He is going to be our judge.
2. Jesus is looking for fruit
What sort of fruit?
Looking back over the previous verses
Ø The fruit of praise: men and women recognising that Jesus is the Lord
Ø The fruit that comes when men and women choose to follow him rather than follow their own desires or the desires of the world
Ø The fruit of service
Ø The fruit of love and compassion and humility before God
Isaiah, in chapter 5, describes Israel as a vineyard. God ‘dug it up, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines and built a watchtower’. He then waits and looks for this vineyard to bear fruit: for justice and righteousness. But instead he sees violence and distress. So he says, “I’m going to remove the watchtower and the wall. My vineyard will be trampled and become a wasteland”
But God has still not given up completely on us. And throughout the Old Testament there is the promise of a root, a stump of Jesse, who will be established. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that root. And Jesus describes himself as the true vine. And he says to his people, ‘If you remain in me, fixed to me, you will bear fruit: the fruit of obedience and love’. But he warns that if we do not remain in him, we will be cut off and burned
3. Jesus is looking for authenticity at the place of meeting with God.
There was no authenticity at the temple. The temple was the place where God had said that people could come to meet with him. But they had turned it into a place where they could rip off the people who came to meet God
Compare Amos 5:21-24
God hates it when we try to use prayer to further our own little gods.
Self-centred prayer: make my business prosper and make the enemies business fail
To boost our own ego’s (‘the long prayers’)
I am not saying that we should not pray about the things that are on our minds. I am not saying that we should not pray for the bigger house, or the promotion, or business success. What I am saying is that in our prayer there has to be a place for saying, but "Father God, your will be done, your kingdom come", and if your kingdom coming means that I do not succeed or am not healthy - it doesn't matter.
Sometimes I ask people to write a list of the things that they pray for – and then we compare our requests with the Lord’s prayer.
In verses 22 to 25 Jesus teaches about prayer with faith. On the surface it does seem that Jesus is giving us a blank cheque: if you believe something enough then it will happen. It does seem that Jesus is extolling the virtue of positive thinking, of what some people have called ‘name it and claim it’. Look at verse 24.
But we cannot take verse 24 out of context.
The faith that Jesus is talking about here is
1. Faith in God. It is not faith in prayer, but faith in the God who answers prayer. I sometimes say that I do not believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of the God who answers prayer. And there is a significant difference.
In verse 22 Jesus says, "Have faith in God". God can do all things but God will not necessarily do all things. In the end prayer is not about me and my desire, but about God and his desire.
2. Faith to move mountains. And in this context, the mountain that Jesus is looking at is almost certainly the temple mount. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you have faith then you can change the whole order of things. You can pray in the kingdom of God”.
"What then is the nature of petitionary prayer? It is, in essence, rebellion—rebellion against the world in its falleness, the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is pervasively abnormal. It is, in this its negative aspect, the refusal of every agenda, every scheme, every interpretation that is at odds with the norm as originally established by God." (David Wells).
Prayer is not primarily praying for the things that our on our mind, but for the things that are on God’s mind.
Remember Mark 8. Just before Jesus tells his disciples that they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him, he has turned to Peter and said, “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns”. Following Jesus, taking up our cross, means asking God to put into our mind his concerns.
And remember Jesus, in Mark 14:35, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will”. It is the prayer that has everything: intimacy, confession, request and submission.
And I think that this is why verse 25 is there [v25]. Prayer is not to be used as a weapon for our own personal battles. If they hurt me, then it is not for me to pray that the ground will shift under their feet or that the mountain will fall on them. If they hurt me it is my task, as someone who has been forgiven, to forgive. A man once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive”. To which Wesley replied, “Then sir, I hope that you never sin”. And maybe asking God to give us the will to forgive someone who has hurt us may be the mountain for which we are praying to be moved.
Jesus is here encouraging his disciples and us to pray big prayers. He is encouraging us to pray for the impossible. But the things for which we pray are to be the things that are on God’s agenda and not our own. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We are to pray that we will be people who bear good fruit.
So the fig tree: it really is Jesus’ last warning to the people of Jerusalem. It is the only time he does anything like this. It is the only time that he uses his power to destroy. But he is desperate for the people to realise what is happening. He is desperate to see the fruit that God requires. He is desperate for people to realise that judgement is round the corner. And so he acts out, in the most dramatic way possible, the judgement of God.
He passes judgement on a fruitless fig tree in order that he might not need to pass judgement on a fruitless people.