Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. (verses 18-19)
At first blush it seems that Jesus, in a fit of pique, curses the tree simply because it didn’t have fruit to satisfy his immediate hunger. But on closer reflection, it seems rather that he is setting up his disciples for two valuable lessons. One comes as an acted parable, the other as a demonstration of faith.
The acted parable shows that judgement is coming on those who, hypocritically, give a show of spiritual life but are actually fruitless. Fig trees didn’t typically bear fruit at this time of year – it was still too early in the Spring. Indeed, Mark, recounting this same story, specifically makes that point. But this tree is unusual in that it already has a full canopy of leaves, which would usually coincide with a crop of fruit. So, by all appearances, this tree is an early bloomer – although it’s too early for figs, it’s giving every indication that it’s fruitful already. But the appearance is deceiving. When Jesus comes right up to it, he discovers nothing but leaves, which then leads to his word of judgement: “May you never bear fruit again!”
Coming right on the heels of the hostile irritation of the religious leaders following the cleansing of the Temple, there seems to be a clear parallel. The chief priests and teachers of the law are ensconced in Temple worship and formality but devoid of any ability to truly apprehend the power of God displayed in Jesus’ life. He’s healed the blind and lame. He’s ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem such that even children cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” But these religious elite don’t get it. They give the outward appearance of being spiritually alive, but in fact are dead, without fruit and unable to embrace Jesus’ demonstrations of the kingdom. They’ve got lots of leaves, but no figs. Judgement is therefore coming upon them. That’s the acted parable.
The demonstration of faith comes in the miracle itself. The disciples are dumbfounded that the tree withers so quickly. How did that happen? they ask.
Jesus tells them they can engage in such activity, too, if they have faith. He’s already given them the illustration of moving mountains (Matthew 17:20), but now he uses it again, combining it with this real-time illustration of the withered fig tree. “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer,” Jesus says.
It's a powerfully, stretching teaching. I don’t want to eliminate any of that “stretch” – my own faith desperately needs it. But I realize that “believing” is not simply an act of the mind and will, but an engagement of relationship. We believe in Jesus. It is “in him” that we place faith. So, Jesus’ statement here is not simply a blank cheque, but rather a call to align ourselves with his will. It ties in directly with the teaching he will give his disciples on the night before the cross: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:13-14).
It's a call to follow, to trust, to hear his voice, to embrace his kingdom, and to make requests in his name, all the while being stretched to have mustard seed faith that moves mountains and withers unfruitful trees.
That’s a lesson I need each day.
Dear Lord Jesus, stretch me in believing. Lift my sights to what you are wanting to accomplish in this world. Strengthen me to pray, with faith believing, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Fill me with your Spirit. To your glory. Amen.
Reflect: What is the Lord currently calling you to pray, in alignment with his will? With confidence, believe that what you ask will be received. Trust Jesus.