29 November 2011

Matthew 21:12-22

"In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, 'May no fruit ever come from you again!' And the fig tree withered at once." (vv. 18-19)


It's not surprising when I get home from a long day's work and curse the fridge for being empty. But I am human, and likely to blame the fridge for my own lack of organisation. My family and friends will tell you that grumpiness is a reliable indication that I'm hungry.

But would we really expect the same of Jesus? Was it unreasonable for him to curse the tree for being fruitless when, as in Mark's version of the story (Mark 11:12-14), it wasn't even the season for figs?

However, perhaps the stories that challenge our perceptions of Jesus are especially important, because they tell us something that we don't instinctively know about him. Today's passage is undoubtedly a weird one, and the situation clearly puzzled the disciples as much as it puzzles us today, so what can we learn from it?

The fig tree has an important place in the Bible - it crops up more than 30 times. In the Old Testament, having your own fig tree was a sign of prosperity and wealth - the tribe of Israel was told of figs growing in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:8). But the image of a fig tree was also used to symbolise the nation of Israel as God's chosen people (as in Joel 2:21-25). This image would have resonated with the author and readers of Matthew's Gospel. So we know that this story is not just about fruit or a tree, or even Jesus being grumpy and hungry after a day's work.

It's also important to look at where the story sits in the Gospels. In Matthew it comes just after the 'cleansing of the temple' (the first part of today's reading), where Jesus drove out the store-holders and money-changers from the temple. In Mark's Gospel, the story precedes the cleansing of the temple. In a land under Roman occupation, the temple was the supreme symbol of Israel's national identity and (almost literally) the home of their God. Jesus hoped to find 'fruitful' worship at the temple but was sorely disappointed and we see that symbolically acted out with a literal fig tree, much to the disciples' puzzlement. In the withering of the tree we also see the withering of the teaching and authority of the chief priests and scribes due to their lack of true faith.

But there's another important dimension to this story - Jesus hints at his true identity as the Son of God by demonstrating the power he wields over nature. But, more than that, he assures his disciples that their own faithful prayers can be just as powerful.

To Ponder

What stories about Jesus surprise you? How do you deal with the things that seem out of character from the Jesus you know and love?

Do you trust in the power of your own prayers? What difference do you think it would make if you trusted them more?

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.