Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree? – John MacDuff

Then he returned to Bethany, where he stayed overnight. In the morning, as Jesus was returning to Jerusalem, he was hungry, and he noticed a fig tree beside the road. He went over to see if there were any figs on it, but there were only leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” And immediately the fig tree withered up. – Matthew 21:17-19

Following the chronological sequence of the Evangelical narrative, an Olivet ‘memory’ of a different kind, now claims our attention. The incident has the one remarkable peculiarity, that it stands alone in the ministry of Christ as a miracle of punishment. At other times, as we follow the footsteps of our blessed Lord, and are the spectators of His mighty works, He scatters mercy on His path. By miracle and parable, by word and deed, He countersigns and endorses His own declaration, “The Son of man came not to destroy, but to save.” Here, however, though it be but on an inanimate object in outer nature, we are arrested with a strange, solitary exception.

As He is crossing from Bethany on the Monday of the Passion-week, early in the morning, before the great influx of worshipers at this festive season would throng the Temple, a fig plantation, near to the beaten pathway, attracted His eye. “The time of figs was not yet.” As a general rule, it was not yet the fig-season, except perhaps in the earlier and more favoring climate of Jericho and Gennesaret. It was therefore altogether premature and precocious at this period of the year (the end of March) for a fig-tree to be in full foliage, and especially on the comparatively elevated region of the Mount of Olives. While, however, the fig-orchard, now visible, was still destitute of leaves–or, at all events, these were only in embryo–one abnormal and exceptional member of the group is covered with foliage, giving reason to infer that the figs also were ripe and ready for gathering.

You may be aware of the peculiarity in the fig-tree, that the fruit, contrary to the ordinary order of development in the vegetable kingdom, appears before the leaves; so that the spectacle of a tree in full leaf, afforded ground to believe that fruit would be found thereon. Our blessed Lord approaches it, as if He had a right thus to expect, from its leafy appearance, that it should be covered with figs. He finds it to be a mass of pretentious foliage–nothing else; and He utters against it a withering curse. On returning by the same road, that afternoon, to His mountain home, the shades of eventide prevented the disciples noting how literally the blighting word had taken effect. But the next morning, as they are again wending their way to the city, the withered, blasted stem and drooping leaves arrest their attention–“Master,” said Peter, “behold, the fig-tree which you cursed has withered away,” (Mark 11:21.)

Undoubtedly for this strange exception to the customary tenderness of Christ’s miracles, there must be some special reason–a loving Redeemer punishing, and that, also, not a moral, responsible agent, but a dumb unconscious tree. Some peculiar reason indeed there must have been for the miracle at all. Jesus, we may be well assured, did not work it merely to give farther proof and exhibition of His omnipotence. The withering of a tree would, in itself, be comparatively a small attestation to His power, after the grandeur of Lazarus’s resurrection. What, then, meant He? We must go to Himself in the lowly spirit of the disciples, saying, ‘Declare unto us the parable and miracle of the fig-tree.’

The preceding day had been an illustrious one. In the week, it corresponded with our Sabbath, and, as we have found, was signalized by what was outwardly the most brilliant Olivet memory, the Triumphal entrance of the Redeemer into Jerusalem. It closed with an act of sovereign power–the cleansing of the Temple, and the dispersion of the traders, who, with their usurious traffic, were desecrating its sacred precincts. The blighting of the fig-tree forms the completion and complement of this series of expressive symbolic actions, relative to the doom of Jerusalem. And mark the order–the gradation rising to a terrible climax. First, The tender tears–the last pleadings of rejected love. Second, The righteous anger at the desecrated Temple courts, and the figurative dispersion of the Jewish people. Finally, and last of all, the impenitent nation, under the type and symbol of a blighted fig-tree, pining and withering away. These together, formed three acted parables–three illustrations in deed, of the dirge He had spoken in words–“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent unto you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate,” (Luke 13:34, 35.)

Here, then, is the key to this (in some respects, perplexing and enigmatical) incident, in the closing scenes of the Savior’s ministry. That fig-tree is the kingdom of Israel. One thought, next to the great redemption of His Church, seemed, at that time, to occupy the mind of Jesus–it was the nation’s downfall and ruin. It drew tears from His eyes. He who wept not for Himself, wept for the despisers of His mercy and patience forbearance. The tears on the brow of Olivet passed into holy indignation and anger at the sight of the Temple sacrilege; and this again, led these lips, which loved to utter nothing but tenderness, to frame a final, irrevocable, sentence of doom. In order to teach and impress the great lesson, He invests, for the time, that dumb fig-tree with moral qualities–He makes it the expositor of a moral truth.

And observe how specially and singularly applicable the mute symbol was. The Jewish nation stood forth amid its compeers–the empires of the earth–a proud claimant to goodness and righteousness. The other Gentile kingdoms were in darkness and error. These latter had no fruit on their branches; but then, there was this distinction–they made no boastful pretension of having any. They were empty, poverty-stricken, as the Jew himself; no, a deeper blindness sealed their eyes. But, unlike the Jew, they made no vaunting boast of spiritual superiority. They felt that, in moral development, it might figuratively be said of them, “The time of figs was not yet,” they were waiting with longing earnestness for the dawning of some better day, which would give life and light to the world. The nation of Israel, on the other hand, sought to stand out in proud, self-confident pre-eminence. It was a fig-tree clothed with leaves. It had its imposing outward religion–its hallowed traditions–its boasted Temple–its mitred priests–its phylacteried Pharisees–its morning and evening sacrifices–its aromas of incense–its prophets’ sepulchers–its synagogues, and oratories, and mountain-altars–the land was studded with these outward signs and symbols of religious life.

Yes, when we think of all these, there were “leaves” enough. But beneath this ostentatious foliage, what was there? Pride–formalism–vain glory–selfishness–oppression. “How striking the image of that theocracy of solemn form, proudly displaying its ceremonials of worship, while the very heart of the nation was become dry and dead as sapless wood.” (Pressense’s Life of Christ.) This ought to have been the confession of that privileged people in the day of their merciful visitation–‘We, like that fig-tree on our sacred mountain, have had every fostering natural advantage. In a spiritual sense, ours has been the favoring climate, the congenial sunshine, the rains and dews of heaven. But we feel and acknowledge that we have perverted and abused these sacred influences. We are naked, leafless, fruitless, unproductive cumberers. All true and acceptable righteousness in us is lacking. Our ancestral law, which should have produced holiness, proclaims our deficiency–utters our condemnation. We participate in the longings of humanity, and of the holiest and best of our nation, for a better righteousness than our own. We feel our need of such a Savior as that of whom our prophets have thus spoken, This is the name whereby He shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.’

And was not that Savior in their midst? Had not all the ardent aspirations of the sainted fathers and worthies of Israel met and been fulfilled in the person of “God manifest in the flesh?” Yet, in blinded unbelief, they closed their eyes to irresistible attestations of His divine majesty and power. Though disease fled at His touch, and winds and waves were lulled at His bidding, and devils crouched at His word, and death, at His summons, gave up its reluctant prey, yet ‘He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.’ In defiant pride, the fruitless fig-tree shook its vaunting branches and foliage before the eye of the heart-searching God, and urged its boastful claim to that of which it was utterly devoid. The Incarnate Redeemer approached in divine-human majesty. He unmasked the pretentious hypocrite, and left it with a blighting doom. Like the earth, which, despite of all genial influences, brought forth only briars and thorns, it was ‘rejected–near unto cursing, whose end was to be burned.’ And as we come at this day, like the disciples of old on Mount Olivet, to gaze on this tree once planted by God’s right hand, what do we see? It is a nation scattered and stripped. The Jewish race, for eighteen hundred years, like withered leaves–carrying the tidings of their curse to the kingdoms of their dispersion.

We can understand, then, the primary meaning and intention of the Savior in this strange exceptional act among His miracles of mercy–mutilating and destroying a work of His own hands–it was, that that blighted tree of the fig-forest might take up a parable to the house of Israel. Nothing could be more impressive. There, on one of the heights or undulations of that holy Mount, like the solitary calcined pillar which once overlooked the Valley of Siddim–stood a withered thing, all the more conspicuous by contrast with the rich carpet of spring-flowers and verdure which doubtless then, as now, spread around; on its scarred stem the doom written, “O Israel, you have destroyed yourself.”

But we have not exhausted the divine purpose and meaning in this symbolic action. That stern deed was a prophecy and sermon to EVERY AGE–a solemn sermon preached for all time, alike for the Church collectively and for believers individually. The Savior’s dooming sentence on the fig-tree, is a searching word to all formalists–boasting hypocrites–who stand forth before the world in pretentious leaves, but who are utterly devoid of that which the great Seeker alone values–fruit to His glory.

Churches are involved in that doom. Since the introduction of Christianity, down to our own days, have there not been too many examples of leaf-covered, but fruitless fig-trees–churches with imposing worldly splendor; decorated aisles–splendid liturgies–venerable relics–dim religious light–gorgeous festivals–priestly and hierarchal orders boasting apostolic succession and sacramental efficacy–and yet, within all this pomp of show, this imposing ecclesiastical organization–an utter dearth and destitution of spiritual energy and life? What have all such been, and proved? deceptive leaves–outer foliage, screening and masking utter barrenness, the outward work of man attempted to be put in the place of the inner work of God–the pomp of ritual and sensuousness of ritual, having the precedence over repentance and faith–the external of the casket looked to, more than the enclosed jewel of holiness.

Is it not this ostentatious outward profession (clustering foliage without corresponding fruit) which is delineated by an inspired pen, as the attribute of the Church in its latter day of lukewarmness and apostasy? Hear the words of the apostle, “But mark this–there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good,” and then, mark how the mournful catalogue is summed up–it is by telling us, that this accursed, cumbering tree–not one branch of which has a redeeming cluster of fruit–is nevertheless clothed with pretentious leaves; for it is added, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

Nor does the searching lesson terminate here. The doom of the withered fig-tree has a personal application to individual professors. Who has not seen the living counterpart in the ostentatious Christian, the flaming orthodoxy of whose creed is sadly belied by the daily life–by the manifestation of selfishness, peevishness, fretfulness, pride, frivolity, discontent, uncharitableness, censoriousness–no inward crucifixion of sin, no molding of the heart in conformity with the will of God? These are the poor, withered, scarred stems, which the leaves of profession overlap and conceal.

How Christ again and again, by word and deed, shows how He hates all facade, pretense, display, unreality. He ever dealt with tenderness to the very chief of sinners. He never spurned true penitence, however great the guilt, from His feet. But with what burning invective does He hurl His denunciations against Pharisees, “HYPOCRITES!” Fruitless professor, sad and mournful indeed is your state. There is more hope for the open sinner than for you. Yours is the mimic life of the dumb insensate mummy in the Egyptian sarcophagus. It is the hectic flush in the maiden’s cheek–the appearance of loveliness, the deceitful sign of beauty–but, in reality, the ominous symbol of inner waste and decay and death. The blight of God’s curse is upon you. “How soon is the fig-tree withered away!”

The great practical deduction from this solemn passage, may be expressed in the words which the old Preacher of the desert addressed to the thronging crowds around him–“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees–therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” This whole passage, indeed, seems to bring out “the goodness and severity” of Jesus. His goodness and tenderness towards all–but that goodness when insulted, injured, despised–passing into needful severity and doom!

We may mark, also, in these chapters, the same gradation in the case of individuals, we have already noted with reference to the Jewish nation collectively. First, There are the tears of divine human emotion; the unutterable sorrow over His rejected overtures of love, as the Redeemer still strives and pleads with the impenitent, saying, “How shall I give you up?” The next step, is when He enters the soul-temple, and sees it degraded and desecrated with works of darkness and sin–that soul, with its Godlike chambers converted into a robber-haunt of Satan, a den of thieves. Then comes the sad climax of all. The soul He has loved, wept over, borne with, entreated, becomes a doomed, blighted, withered thing, a dreadful monument of His righteous judgment and avenging wrath!

In these different ways He may be dealing with those whose eyes trace these pages. With some, it may be, in the way of tears and tenderness. Seated on the brow of the Heavenly mount, He may be bending over you in pitying love, and addressing you in words of affectionate admonition. In the case of others, He may be using sterner means, He may be entering the Temple with the whip of small cords, “driving,” with affliction’s scourge, these robber spoilers from what He would still reclaim and purify for Himself, saying, “Except you repent you shall all likewise perish.” In the case of others (may there be none such) it is the last, sad, utterance of all. Warning, and admonition, and forbearance, and patience, are terminated. The tears have wept themselves away; compassion has exhausted its treasures; and the thunder-cloud rises in its stead. He must (dreadful alternative!) curse those who will not receive His blessing–“Henceforth let no fruit grow upon you forever.” Oh what a terrible state is this, into which the doomed soul then passes! The tree–the moral, thinking, living agent, is dead. Yes, living on, a conscious existence, and yet dead while he lives!

There are two ways by which God deals with incorrigible sinners, corresponding to the two ways He dealt with the two fig-trees of the Gospels. Both were cumberers. Both were doomed. But by different methods was their doom consummated. The one was ‘cut down.’ After a three years’ patient bearing with it, (continuing to resist all efforts to make it fruitful,) the insulted Husbandman clears the grass around the stem; the axe descends; it lies prone on the ground, stripped, bared, plucked up by the roots; the place which once knew it knows it no more!

The dealing with the other is different. It still keeps its place in the plantation. But it is a naked, lonely, blighted stem, bearing upon it the curse of permanent unfruitfulness. It needs not a judgment to come. It is judged, ‘condemned already’–“I the Lord have dried up the green tree,” (Ezek. 17:24.) The dreadful doom is consummated in silence. There is no audible voice to record its fulfillment; no avenging angel descends to pour his vial on the stem of the fig-tree; no horde of devouring locusts to strip its leaves; no tempest to wrestle with its branches. Unlike the symbolical vine of Egypt, no boar out of the wood desolates it, no wild beast of the field devours it. God simply withdraws the agencies which have been so long repelled and resisted–the moistening rains and the reviving sunshine, which, in the case of others, have quickened life and fruitfulness.

Like Gilboa, on whose arid top, amid its sisterhood of mountains, the refreshing dew seems, to this day, to fall in vain–the barren tree stands in its life of death, given up by God–“Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone”–“Let no fruit henceforth grow upon you forever!” Yes! I repeat, dreadful indeed such a case as this. Abandoned! Like that picture of the abandoned vessel, so truthfully delineated by the pencil of a great modern painter, a hulk on the wide sea, abandoned to its fate, the sport of winds and waves and ruffian elements, an unwieldy log on the great waters, without mast, or sail, or helm, or crew–drifting, drifting onwards along the ocean, amid the bleak howling winds and wastes of a dark and cheerless eternity!

‘Forever,’ ‘irreversible,’ did I say? No, not so! God speaks of those who are ‘near unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.’ “But the end is not yet”–while there is life there is hope. In the middle acted parable to which we have adverted, (the driving from the Temple,) there is an incident of blessed significance introduced. Jesus healed the diseased ones–“And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them,” (Matt. 21:14.) It was an evidence interjected in the midst of righteous retribution, that ‘in wrath He remembers mercy;’ that even now, that heart of Divine power and human love is a hoarded garner of pity and compassion, open to all who will avail themselves of its treasures.

We dare never, to one lost soul on this side the grave, shut the door of pardon. “Forever” is the fearful word for the dungeons of despair. Mercy, pardon, forgiveness, are still words for the living. There is a summer-time of grace ever near, even in the dreariest winter of spiritual desolation. God is giving us a reprieve. Every new day is such–another chance of salvation, another offer of mercy, before the knell of the soul be rung forever! Prisoners–but “Prisoners of hope.”

Yes, go stand by that stripped, speechless, silent fig-tree, on the crest of Olivet, and while you behold there a dreadful witness to the Redeemer’s wrath, look at the same time at that sister fig-tree to which He pointed, at an earlier date of His ministry, in the regions of Galilee. He came to it, as He comes to each one of us, expecting “fruit;” “I looked that it should bring forth fruit.” There was none. Is it doomed at once?–No; an all-prevailing Intercessor pleads for one other year of respite and mercy–one other year to fertilize and dig about its roots, one other blessed chance of hope and forgiveness; and then, if there be no fruit, “after that,” to cut it down.

‘After that’–who can tell how brief the duration? ‘After that’–it may be a measured, meted out, perhaps nearly-exhausted season, for some one of us! Reader, self-convicted and self-condemned, are you led in prayerful penitence to exclaim–‘Lord, I am that fig-tree; the message of this ‘memory’ is for me. That one year of gracious respite and reprieve, oh let me improve it! There may be but some weeks of it, some days of it, yet to run. A few more swings of the pendulum, and the time so graciously included in “after that,” will have fled forever, beyond the possibility of recall. Oh spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence and be no more!’

And if we would add one word more, it is a closing gospel thought, suggested by the fig foliage of this parable-miracle. It was with the pretentious leaves of this same tree, that Adam and Eve, in Paradise, sought to cover their nakedness. God stripped away the leafy garments, and provided them instead, with the hides–the skins of the animals slain on the sacrificial altar. That was the earliest of the Bible’s acted parables. It was a Gospel Parable uttered in Eden, but one full of gracious comfort to the Church in every age. The fig-tree clothing of self-righteousness is utterly unavailing; the Lord who walks amid the trees of the garden strips it away–it cannot abide His righteous glance, His avenging scrutiny. But He has a blessed substitute at hand. He has woven, into a divine texture, the leaves of the Tree of life for the healing of the nations. “I will bring near,” says He, “my righteousness”–the covering, the glorious vesture provided by the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. He reveals “the righteousness of Christ, which is unto all and upon all those who believe.” Oh! dead, barren fig-tree, lift up your drooping withered leaves and live. “For whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life!”

-John MacDuff

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