Have you ever felt sorry for the fig tree that Jesus cursed? I have.
Let’s leave the fig tree for a moment and go back to the previous day in Jesus’ life. Imagine you’re there by the side of the road. Crowds of people are waving palm branches, cheering Jesus on as he rides a donkey along the avenue. They want to make him their King.
It’s like street theatre: a panoramic tableau played out against the backdrop of the people, with Jesus as the central figure. Dust covers everyone and people throw their coats on the road as a carpet for the lone rider. His goal: Jerusalem.
When they reach the city, Jesus dismounts and goes into the Temple to see what’s going on there. Nothing good, as it turns out. It’s late in the day, so he and his friends go back to the village of Bethany. End of Act One.
Next morning it’s a new day and the drama continues.
At breakfast-time, Jesus is hungry and when he sees a leafy fig tree in the distance, he checks it out, hoping for something to eat. Finding nothing, he curses it: ‘Never again will you produce fruit!’ His friends hear. Maybe you would hear too.
I’ve thought this was a bit unfair of Jesus. We’re told it wasn’t yet the time for figs. But Jesus wasn’t looking for them. So what was going on here?
Some varieties of fig produce fruits that are called taqsh in the Middle East. Others call them breber: knobby things that precede the proper fruit. If they don’t appear, it’s a sign there’ll be no real figs on the tree that season. This tree was pretending it would be fruitful when it had no intention of doing so. End of Act Two.
When Jesus and his friends arrive at the Temple they find another noisy crowd selling stuff and doing deals with the worshippers. The holy place is a shambles.
Jesus immediately starts to turn over their tables, throw out their livestock, their money and their tawdry, thieving practices! Then he begins to teach them with some amazing words. Hear what he says as you stand by.
My house was designated a house of prayer for the nations; you’ve turned it into a hangout for thieves.
These words shine like a beacon in that place of turmoil and ungodly business. We’re now at the climax of the drama. We can begin to see what it is all about. An onlooker would understand.
By now it’s growing dark so Jesus and his friends leave Jerusalem. End of Act Three.
Next morning it’s another day.
As Jesus and his friends walk along the road, one of them says, ‘Look, Master, the fig tree you cursed yesterday. It’s now just a dry stick!’
Jesus isn’t surprised. ‘Nothing’s too hard for anyone who really takes on the God-life! You can even tell this mountain to move into the lake! Pray for everything and you’ll get God’s everything’. And finally, the punch line: ‘and when you pray, don’t make out you’re something you’re not. Forgive everyone and God will forgive you’. End of Act Four.
They arrive in Jerusalem again and enter the Temple. The arch enemies of Jesus accost him and demand his credentials for what he’s said and done over the past couple of days.
Jesus replies, ‘I’ll tell you if you answer my question first, ‘Who authorised the baptism of John the Baptist; heaven or humans?’
The religious leaders can’t decide what to answer. ‘If we say heaven, he’ll want to know why we didn’t believe in him. If we say humans, the people won’t like it because they believe John was a prophet’. So they weakly give in and say, ‘We don’t know’. Jesus says, ‘Then I won’t answer your question’.
Did you hear that exchange, you who are standing by? Have I heard it too? End of Drama.
John the Baptist represented the old covenant. A new era was about to begin, with Jesus as King…for all nations. A place where everyone is welcome in God’s kingdom, where all can pray and all can be on a level footing with God.
The Great Drama was about to start and those enemies of Jesus couldn’t wait to play their part in it. But they didn’t win.
I believe this whole drama is a Hebrew poem recorded by John Mark in his Gospel about Jesus’ life. It is found in the Bible in Mark chapter eleven.
The prophecy which Jesus quoted in the Temple can be read in the book of Isaiah 56:1-8, especially verse seven.
I have drawn on The Message Bible, translated by Eugene H Peterson, to paraphrase some of the words of the Bible in this post.