Why Did Jesus Curse a Fig Tree? (Matthew 21)

When Jesus judges the fig tree, he foretells judgment not on all Israelites but on those who, like the luxuriantly leafy but fruitless tree, appear to be alive but are barren (Matt. 13:22). Jesus has just inspected the temple and found it wanting. The spectacle of worship—the priests, the music, the sacrifices, the gleaming buildings—is grand but fruitless. Its leaders bar Gentiles from worship and plot the murder of their king. Truly, it has become a cave of rebels against God, their show of religion notwithstanding.

18In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Matthew 21:18–22

Jesus as Lord and Judge

Passover is days away, and pilgrims stream into Jerusalem. Many have traveled from Galilee; they spontaneously hail Jesus as prophet and Son of David as they enter Jerusalem with him. After entering, Jesus visits the temple. As so often, Mark offers details that Matthew omits. Mark 11:11 notes how Jesus “looked around at everything” and then left the city with the Twelve, “as it was already late.” Whether “looking around” signifies a quick look or a thorough examination, Mark gives Jesus an evening to meditate before he purges the temple. If Mark suggests contemplation, Matthew describes direct action: Jesus enters, drives out the merchants, overturns their tables, and then explains himself: they have made God’s house into a “den of robbers” or, it could be translated, a “cave of insurrectionists” (Matt. 21:12–13).

Explanations are in order. First, currency exchange is not immoral. Travelers would seek to purchase animals for their sacrifices and feasts, and they had to convert their currency into the temple’s. The problem is not commerce per se but commerce in the temple precincts, as Jesus explains by quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

“Prayer” is synecdoche for public worship: the prayers, songs, teachings, and offerings of the temple. It is possible that the merchants overcharge, but Jesus drives out buyers and sellers, so malfeasance cannot be the sole issue. The problem is corruption of the temple’s purpose: the noise of commerce and animals prevents the silence that is the context for prayer, worship, and instruction. If rabbinic comments are accurate, Caiaphas the high priest had recently moved the sale of sacrificial animals from the valley near Jerusalem into the temple court reserved for Gentiles. This might account for the additional phrase in Mark 11:17: the temple is to be a “house of prayer for all the nations.”

The context of Jesus’ OT citations is essential. Isaiah 56 declares that no one— neither eunuch nor Gentile—should say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people” (Isa. 56:3). No, to those who hold to the covenant, the Lord says, “I will . . . make them joyful in my house of prayer; . . . for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7). Whatever the logic of the temple commerce, it makes worship difficult for Gentiles and neglects Isaiah’s word. By citing Isaiah, Jesus implicitly claims that his action brings the messianic blessing predicted by the prophet. Further, Jesus’ “disruptive action” is necessary if the temple is to regain “its God-ordained purpose.”1

While the temple has ceased to be a house of prayer for the nations, it has become a “den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). Scholars doubt that the problem is corruption among the money-changers, since (again) Jesus opposes both selling and buying, and there is no record of complaints against them.2 The merchants, with the priests’ approval, are certainly depriving Gentiles of their right to worship God. The phrase “den of robbers,” from Jeremiah 7, is instructive too.

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