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Jesus’ Scorned Fig Tree and Sacred Cows

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (Le vigneron et le figuier)

Since our theme is leadership this month of May, let’s talk about a rather obscure event in Jesus’ ministry that illustrates one of leadership’s tougher aspects:  declaring the sacred cows of our lives that are broken and need fixing.

Matthew 21 tells one of those stories that can leave us scratching our heads more than experiencing a transforming inspirational moment.  Why would Christ Jesus, who loved children, his disciples, the sea and mountains, suddenly have it in for a fig tree?  The key in unpacking this story is something I stumbled upon in Bible study with friends – going verse by verse and asking yourself:  where are they now?  Who just joined the scene? What is the context in terms of what happened just before these verses?

Such questions help us see what we might have only glossed over before.  In this case we are toward the closing chapters of Matthew so we know the Passion Week is upon us. And this is how Matthew 21 opens:  looking for the colt that will fulfill prophesy and take Jesus into the city of Jerusalem in the princely style of the true Messiah.  And that’s what happens: the crowds greet him with cries of “Hosanna” and one is loathe to think the crucifixion will be in just a few more days.

The next event is the overturning of the moneychanger tables at the Jerusalem Temple.  This was Jesus’ first stop and he was repulsed by the commercialism he found there.  Think of the courage to do this radical act in front of Temple authorities, knowing how unsafe it was politically.  But fortunately, that is not how Jesus reasoned and putting God first, as he always did, the confrontation was to purify his Father’s house of prayer.

Jesus and the Fig Tree

Healing importantly follows this upsetting scene at the Temple, and all this leads up to the fig tree.  Jesus returns to where they are spending the night, the nearby village of Bethany and now in the morning, he will return to the Temple once again.  This is where he passes a fig tree that appears healthy enough, yet bears no fruit.

How like the Temple and Judaic religion this tree was:  all appears to be fine, but where is the ‘fruit’–the healing, the indication that these are God’s ‘chosen people’ ready to bless others?  Instead God’s house had been turned into ‘a den of thieves’, as the Master Christian called the Temple, never one to mince words.  This is the kind of ‘sacred cow’ built on tradition and custom that often needs to be challenged.  Jesus did it both with challenging the moneychangers’ practices as well as declaring that his worship of God included helping others be healed of every imaginable disease or sin.

Jesus’ disciples were astonished at the fig tree curse that resulted in almost instant withering and their comments were met with Jesus’ admonition on faith that could move mountains.  Was he indirectly implying that the Jewish people’s worship practices had lost that core element of faith, and the ‘new Israel’, the Christian Church, would have faith and understanding as its centerpiece?

This is one more example of the fearless leadership Jesus showed when confronting actions of others that he knew were wrong.  Such courage surely comes when we have our priorities clear and know who we really serve—and not sacred cows!

Image: The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (Le vigneron et le figuier) by James Tissot, French, 1836-1902 – Brooklyn Museum

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June 4, 2014 6:38 am

Thanks so much for this explanation of the fig tree, especially since I am reading this while the story is in the weekly Bible Lesson.

Marci Richards
Marci Richards
June 4, 2014 7:42 am

Loved the essay re the fig tree. Such an example of the legalism of the Pharisees. All show, no substance (love).

Pat Barrett
Pat Barrett
June 4, 2014 10:58 am

Thanks for the perspective on the story of Jesus and the fig tree in Matthew. One commentary I was reading this morning (Expositor’s Commentary) refers to this incident as a parable that Jesus is acting out and that he may be more focused on those who are all show (leaves) but do not do good works (produce no fruit). than he is on Jews per se. After all, the disciples were Jews, so he would not likely have all Jews in mind, though certainly the criticism would apply to the establishment of the time. For me the emphasis is on… Read more »

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