Popularity is a Withering Fig Tree

After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and after driving the moneychangers out of the temple, He left Jerusalem and stayed in Bethany for a time.  On His way back into the city, an odd event occurs where Jesus curses a fig tree so it can never bear fruit again:

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry.  And 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.” – Matthew 21:18-19

Today’s post covers why I think He did precisely what He did at this time and place, and also why and how Matthew records it in his gospel in this context.  But first, a couple of concepts for background.  Elsewhere, “Jesus said to [His disciples], ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’” (John 4:34).  Also, from the very beginning the will of the Father has been that His creation bear fruit both physically and spiritually. (Genesis 1:22, 1:28).

Although Matthew says Jesus was hungry, He could have easily found food somewhere else or gone without it.  Therefore, Jesus did not make the fig tree wither because He was upset about being hungry.  That would have just been uncontrolled impatience or rage.  He was making a point about something else, which is God’s authority over both nature and man.  The will of the Father is more important than food.  The fig tree was rejecting that authority by not bearing fruit where fruit was needed.[1]

The next event in Matthew’s gospel is “the chief priests and elders of the people” challenging Jesus to prove that He has the authority to do things like chase moneychangers out of the temple and to heal on the Sabbath.[2]  If Jesus was going to disregard the authority of the priests and the elders, they were going to make Him explain, so they ask: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”.  Masterfully, Jesus asks a question of His own: “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”  In this response, Jesus revealed that the priests and elders were like the fig tree bearing no fruit because they rejected God’s authority.  They knew if they answered: “’From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’”  Believing in John the Baptist would require genuinely placing their faith in the God of heaven, and it is no coincidence that John told them to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” earlier in Matthew’s book (3:8).

Jesus’ question proved whose authority these religious leaders feared because in verse 26, they reasoned that they couldn’t say John’s baptism came from man, because that would be unpopular.  They were “afraid of the crowd,” who thought John was a prophet.  They were not interested in learning about Jesus by asking Him questions, but in preserving their own position.  Jesus had provided them all they needed to know about His authority, but they would wither like the fig tree because they rejected Him.

In truth, they were already withering, not knowing how to answer a simple question from Jesus.  They had no integrity to stand on and were subject to the whims of the people to keep what little temporary authority they had.  The parable of the tenants continues this idea in Matthew 21:33-43, and again the religious leaders “feared the crowds” who thought Jesus was a prophet in verse 46.  Ironically, the popular view in both verse 26 and 46 was closer to the truth than what the religious leaders were willing to commit to, but they were not interested in truth.  However, they would not publicly reject it because they needed their popularity.

To be continued tomorrow…

[1] In Mark’s gospel, he notes that it was not the season for figs (11:13), but Matthew leaves that detail out since it is not necessary for the point he is making.
[2] The following quotes are from Matthew 21:23-26

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