Matthew 21:18-22


Matt. 21:18-22

When Jesus was returning to the city early in the morning, he was hungry. When he saw a fig tree by the roadside, he went up to it, and found nothing but leaves. He said to it, “Let no fruit come from you any more for ever!” And immediately the fig tree withered away. When the disciples saw it, they were astonished. “How did the fig tree immediately wither away?” they said. Jesus answered them: “This is the truth I tell you–if you have faith, and, if you do not doubt, not only will you do what happened to the fig tree, but you will even say to this mountain: `Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and it will happen. All that you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”

Few honest readers of the Bible would deny that this is perhaps the most uncomfortably difficult passage in the New Testament. If it be taken with complete literalism, it shows Jesus in an action which is an acute shock to our whole conception of him. It must, therefore, be approached with a real desire to find out the truth which lies behind it and with the courage to think our way through it.

Mark also tells this story (Mk.11:12-14; Mk.11:20-21) but with one basic difference. In Matthew the withering of the fig tree takes place at once. (The King James Version has: “And presently the fig tree withered away.” In Elizabethan English presently meant immediately, at that present moment. The Greek is parachrema (GSN3916), which the Revised Standard Version translates at once, and which Moffatt translates instantly.) On the other hand, in Mark nothing happened to the tree immediately, and it is only next morning, when they are passing on the same road, that the disciples see that the tree has withered away. From the existence of these two versions of the story, it is quite clear that some development has taken place; and, since Mark’s is the earliest gospel, it is equally clear that his version must be nearer to the actual historical facts.

It is necessary to understand the growing and fruit-bearing habits of fig trees. The fig tree was the favourite of all trees. The picture of the Promised Land was the picture of “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees” (Deut.8:8). Pomegranates and figs were part of the treasures which the spies brought back to show the rich fertility of the land (Num.13:23). The picture of peace and prosperity which is common to every part of the old Testament is the picture of a time when every man will sit under his own vine and his own fig tree (1Kgs.4:25; Mic.4:4; Zech.3:10). The picture of the wrath of God is the picture of a day when he would smite and destroy the fig trees (Ps.105:33; Jer.8:13; Hos.2:12). The fig tree is the very symbol of fertility and peace and prosperity.

The tree itself is a handsome tree; it can be three feet thick in its trunk. It grows to a height of from fifteen to twenty feet; and the spread of its thick branches can be twenty-five to thirty feet. It was, therefore, much valued for its shade. In Cyprus the cottages have their fig trees at the door, and Tristram tells how often he sheltered under them and found coolness on the hottest day. Very commonly the fig tree grows overshadowing wells so that there is shade and water in the one place. Often it was the shade of the fig tree which was a man’s private room for meditation and prayer; and that is why Nathanael was amazed that Jesus had marked him under the fig tree (Jn.1:48).

But it is the fig tree’s habit of fruit-bearing which is relevant here. The fig tree is unique in that it bears two full crops in the year. The first is borne on the old wood. Quite early in the year little green knobs appear at the end of the branches. They are called Paggim and they will one day be the figs. These fruit buds come in April but they are quite uneatable. Bit by bit the leaves and the flowers open out, and another unique thing about the fig is that it is in full fruit and full leaf and full flower all at the same time; that happens by June. No fig tree ever bore fruit in April; that is far too early. The process is then repeated with the new wood; and the second crop comes in September.

The strangest thing about this story is twofold. First, it tells of a fig tree in full leaf in April. Jesus was at Jerusalem for the Passover; the Passover fell on 15th April; and this incident happened a week before. The second thing is that Jesus looked for figs on a tree where no figs could possibly be; and Mark says, “For it was not the season for figs” (Mk.11:13).

The difficulty of this story is not so much a difficulty of possibility. It is a moral difficulty; and it is twofold. First, we see Jesus blasting a fig tree for not doing what it was not able to do. The tree could not have borne fruit in the second week of April, and yet we see Jesus destroying it for not doing that very thing. Second, we see Jesus using his miraculous powers for his own ends. That is precisely what in the temptations in the wilderness he determined never to do. He would not turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. The plain truth is this–if we had read of anyone else blasting a fig tree for not bearing figs in April, we would have said it was the act of ill-tempered petulance, springing from personal disappointment. In Jesus that is inconceivable; therefore there must be some explanation. What is it?

Some have found an explanation on the following lines. In Luke there is the parable of the fig tree which failed to bear fruit. Twice the gardener pleaded for mercy for it; twice mercy and delay were granted; in the end it was still fruitless and was therefore destroyed (Lk.13:6-9). The curious thing is that Luke has the parable of the barren fig tree, but he has not this incident of the withering of the fig tree; Matthew and Mark have this incident of the withering of the fig tree, but they have not the parable of the barren fig tree. It looks very much as if the gospel writers felt that if they included the one they did not need to include the other. It is suggested that the parable of the barren fig tree has been misunderstood and been turned into an actual incident. Confusion has changed a story Jesus told into an action Jesus did. That is by no means impossible; but it seems to us that the real explanation must be sought elsewhere. And now we go on to seek it.


Matt. 21:18-22 (continued)

When we were studying the story of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we saw that frequently the prophets made use of symbolic actions; that when they felt that words would not penetrate, they did something dramatic to drive a lesson home. Let us suppose that some such symbolic action is at the back of this story.

Jesus, let us suppose, was on his way to Jerusalem. By the wayside he saw a tree in full leaf. It was perfectly legitimate for him to pluck the figs from it, if there had been any. Jewish law allowed that (Deut.23:24-25); and Thomson in The Land and the Book tells us that even in modern times the wayside fig tree is open to all. Jesus went up to the fig tree, well knowing that there could be no fruit, and well knowing that there must be something radically wrong with it. One of two things could have happened. The fig tree could have reverted to its wild state, just as roses revert to briars. Or, it could be in some way diseased. Then Jesus said: “This tree will never bear fruit; it will certainly wither.” It was the statement of a man who knew nature, because he had lived with nature. And on the next day it was clear that the diagnosis of his expert eye of Jesus was exactly right.

If this was a symbolic action, it was meant to teach something. What it was meant to teach was two things about the Jewish nation.

(i) It taught that uselessness invites disaster. That is the law of life. Anything which is useless is on the way to elimination; any thing can justify its existence only by fulfilling the end for which it was created. The fig tree was useless; therefore it was doomed.

The nation of Israel had been brought into existence for one reason and one reason only–that from it there might come God’s Anointed One. He had come; the nation had faded to recognize him; more, they were about to crucify him. The nation had failed in its function which was to welcome God’s Son–therefore the nation was doomed.

Failure to realize the purpose of God brings necessary disaster. Everyone in this world is judged in terms of usefulness. Even if a person is helpless on a bed, he can be of the greatest use by patient example and by prayer. No one need be useless; and he who is useless is heading for disaster.

(ii) It taught that profession without practice is condemned The tree had leaves; the leaves were a claim to have figs; the tree had no figs; its claim was false; therefore it was doomed. The Jewish nation professed faith in God; but in practice they were out for the blood of God’s Son; therefore they stood condemned.

Profession without practice was not only the curse of the Jews; it has been throughout the ages the curse, of the Church. During his early days in South Africa–in Pretoria–Gandhi enquired into Christianity. For several Sundays he attended a Christian Church, but, he says, “the congregation did not strike me as being particularly religious; they were not an assembly of devout souls, but appeared rather to be worldly-minded people going to Church for recreation and in conformity to custom.” He, therefore, concluded that there was nothing in Christianity which he did not already possess–and so Gandhi was lost to the Christian Church with incalculable consequences to India and to the world.

Profession without practice is something of which we are all more or less guilty. It does incalculable harm to the Christian Church; and it is doomed to disaster, for it produces a faith which cannot do anything else but wither away.

We may well believe that Jesus used the lesson of a diseased and degenerate fig tree to say to the Jews–and to us–that uselessness invites disaster, and profession without practice is doomed. That is surely what this story means, for we cannot think of Jesus as literally and physically blasting a fig tree for failing to bear fruit at a season when fruit was impossible.


Matt. 21:18-22 (continued)

This passage concludes with certain words of Jesus about the dynamic of prayer. If these words are misunderstood, they can bring nothing but heartbreak; but if they are correctly understood, they can bring nothing but power.

In them Jesus says two things; that prayer can remove mountains, and that, if we ask in belief, we will receive. It is abundantly clear that these promises are not to be taken physically and literally. Neither Jesus himself nor anyone else ever removed a physical, geographical mountain by prayer. Moreover, many and many a person has prayed with passionate faith that something may happen or that something may not happen, that something may be given or that someone may be spared from death, and in the literal sense of the words that prayer has not been answered. What then is Jesus promising us through prayer?

(i) He promises that prayer gives us the ability to do. Prayer is never the easy way out; never simply pushing things on to God for him to do them for us. Prayer is power. It is not asking God to do something; it is asking him to make us able to do it ourselves. Prayer is not taking the easy way; it is the way to receive power to take the hard way. It is the channel through which comes power to tackle and remove mountains of difficulty by ourselves with the help of God. If it were simply a method of getting things done for us, prayer would be very bad for us, for it would make us flabby and lazy and inefficient. Prayer is the means whereby we receive power to do things for ourselves. Therefore, no man should pray and then sit and wait; he must pray and then rise and work; but he will find that, when he does, a new dynamic enters his life, and that in truth with God all things are possible, and with God the impossible becomes that which can be done.

(ii) Prayer is the ability to accept, and in accepting, to transform. It is not meant to bring deliverance from a situation; it is meant to bring the ability to accept it and transform it. There are two great examples of that in the New Testament.

The one is the example of Paul. Desperately he prayed that he might be delivered from the thorn in his flesh. He was not delivered from that situation; he was made able to accept it; and in that very situation he discovered the strength that was made perfect in his weakness and the grace which was sufficient for all things–and in that strength and grace the situation was not only accepted, but also transformed into glory (2Cor.12:1-10).

The other is Jesus himself. In Gethsemane he prayed that the cup might pass from him and he be delivered from the agonizing situation in which he found himself; that request could not be granted, but in that prayer he found the ability to accept the situation; and, in being accepted, the situation was transformed, and the agony of the Cross led straight to the glory of the Resurrection. We must always remember that prayer does not bring deliverance from a situation; it brings conquest of it. Prayer is not a means of running away from a situation; it is a means whereby we may gallantly face it.

(iii) Prayer brings the ability to bear. It is natural and inevitable that, in our human need and with our human hearts and our human weakness, there should be things which we feel we cannot bear. We see some situation developing; we see some tragic happening approaching with a grim inevitability; we see some task looming ahead which is obviously going to demand more than we have to give to it. At such a time our inevitable feeling is that we cannot bear this thing. Prayer does not remove the tragedy; it does not give us escape from the situation; it does not give us exemption from the task; but it does make us able to bear the unbearable, to face the unfaceable, to pass the breaking point and not to break.

So long as we regard prayer as escape, nothing but bewildered disappointment can result; but when we regard it as the way to conquest and the divine dynamic, things happen.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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