Jesus cursing the fig tree has been a problematic passage for me, but I recently made significant progress in understanding it. My purpose here is to pass along what I think the passage means and the discovery process by which I reached my interpretation. The details of the passage seem straightforward:
Now in the morning, when He [Jesus] returned to the city, He became hungry. And seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it, and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered. And seeing this, the disciples marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matthew 21:18-20. All quotations are from the NASB.)
The literal action of the passage is this: Jesus is hungry, and when he does not find figs on the tree, he curses it. Apparently, he curses the tree out of anger. If so, cursing the fig tree would appear to be a sinful act, not the act of a sinless Messiah. How could Jesus, who in the first temptation had not eaten for forty days and nights and who told Satan that man does not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:1-4), do this to the fig tree? But if the meaning of this passage is not intended to be its literal meaning, how would I figure that out? Also, if the passage is to be taken metaphorically, what is its meaning and who is the message for? Those are the basic challenges of this passage. The focus of this article is how I discovered the clues that resolved those challenges and arrived at a coherent interpretation.
Let me begin with a few brief comments about “exegesis”—the interpretation of the Bible—and then I will launch into the discovery process by which I came to my interpretation of the fig-tree passage. Exegesis is an art based on a number of skills. Sometimes understanding a passage is greatly aided by a knowledge of the original languages. Other times, the interpretive process focuses on the skill of taking “parts” and combining them into a “whole,” like solving a jigsaw puzzle. And understanding how the parts fit together largely depends on “context.” We can see the importance of context in a simple sentence like “That is a strike, and that is good.” Am I talking about baseball? Am I referring to the pitcher or the batter? Or am I talking about a labor dispute? We cannot understand the sentence unless we understand the word “strike,” and we cannot understand “strike” apart from the larger context of which the sentence is a part. In the example, the context helps us to understand one word, which in turn helps us to understand the sentence. When interpreting the Bible, context helps us understand how a “part” (for example, a word, a sentence, or a paragraph/passage) fits into the “whole”—and ultimately, how even the books of the Bible (“parts”) fit into the Bible as a “whole.”
Furthermore, because our passage about Jesus cursing the fig tree is complex and difficult, understanding it ultimately entails additional skills or tasks, like studying possible parallel passages in Mark, Luke, and John. First we would need to examine each account individually within its own context, and then we would need to determine if the accounts are describing the same events. That process, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
To decide if the passage about Jesus cursing the fig tree should be taken literally or metaphorically, I will focus primarily on understanding the passage within the context of Matthew 21:1-27. Cursing the fig tree in verses 18-20 constitutes a “part,” and verses 1-27 of chapter 21 is the “whole”—that is, the context—I will use to determine whether I should understand the passage literally or metaphorically.
I found the fig-tree passage problematic because it seemed unrelated to the context of the rest of the chapter. Here is a brief sketch of the events in Matthew 21 that precede Jesus cursing the fig tree in verses 18-20: Jesus enters Jerusalem (the “Triumphal Entry” in verses 1-10), he throws the moneychangers out of the temple (vv. 12-13), he heals the blind and lame (vs. 14), the chief priests and scribes become indignant and say a few things (vv. 15-16), Jesus responds and then leaves (vv. 16-17). I could find no connection between these events and Jesus cursing the fig tree the following morning.
Likewise, the verses immediately following Jesus cursing the fig tree seem to come out of the blue:
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen. And everything you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” (Matthew 21:21-22)
Jesus talks about doubt and faith. He mentions the fig tree, so these two verses are somehow connected to Jesus cursing the fig tree, but I did not see how.
And then Matthew 21:23-27 seems to be about a completely different topic: the chief priests are questioning Jesus about his authority, which also appears completely unrelated to the fig tree. The fig-tree passage seems isolated with no clues linking it to the rest of the chapter. This situation led me to put the passage about Jesus cursing the fig tree on the shelf.
Recently, however, I noticed a clue in Matthew 21:23 that had escaped me before:
And when He had come into the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things [emphasis mine], and who gave You this authority?”
When the chief priests and elders ask by what authority Jesus is doing “these things,” what are “these things” Jesus is doing that they want to know about? The verse just says that Jesus is “teaching” in the temple. But what if the chief priests and elders were thinking about the day before, when Jesus had cast out those selling in the temple and had healed the blind and lame (vv. 12-14), and they are asking by what authority he had done those things? Verse 19 tells us that Jesus cursed the fig tree on his way back to the city [and the temple] the morning after he cast the sellers out of the temple and healed people. So then, the fig-tree event comes between Jesus’ two visits to the temple, which suggests a link between his first visit (clearing the temple, healing, and being confronted by the chief priests), cursing the fig tree, and his second visit to the temple when Jesus is again confronted by the chief priests and elders about his authority to do “these things.” Somehow all these “parts” are connected to make one “whole” of Matthew 21:1-27. The meaning of our “part”—Jesus cursing the fig tree—depends upon the context of the “whole.”
I began by observing that the disciples notice the fig tree because it withered suddenly. Clearly, Jesus meant the suddenly withered fig tree to communicate something to the disciples. No one else could ascertain its meaning. Even if a local person noticed that the fig tree withered suddenly, it is doubtful that he would have a clue about why the fig tree withered. But what could Jesus cursing the fig tree have to do with the disciples? Surely, Jesus is not telling them to curse a fig tree if they do not find figs on it when they are hungry. He is trying to communicate something else to the disciples. Jesus cursing the fig tree is meant to be a puzzle or a parable. The disciples have to reflect on the elements of Jesus cursing the fig tree: Why a fig tree? Why are there leaves but no figs? Why curse a tree? Does the tree represent something else? What does each element mean, and is that meaning related to something else? And so forth. We are in the same situation.
I finally landed on this possible understanding: Jesus is hungry. He sees a fig tree, and because it has leaves, he expects that it will also have figs (fruit). When the tree has no fruit, Jesus curses it in order to send a message to the disciples about the connection between not bearing fruit and being cursed. A key observation brought me to this possibility: Jesus expected the tree to have fruit, but it did not. It only appeared to have fruit. But now an obvious question arises: If Jesus wanted the disciples to understand the connection between not bearing fruit and being cursed, what or who is giving the appearance of having fruit but has none?
Since I had established that Jesus intended his cursing the fig tree to communicate something to the disciples, I first thought that Jesus meant the disciples were somehow “fruitless.” Perhaps they were giving the appearance of being his disciples, but they didn’t really believe—at that moment—that he was the Messiah. The disciples ask, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” If they were truly his disciples, shouldn’t they have immediately recognized that the withering of the fig tree was an act of the Messiah? After all, they have been with him a long time. They have seen him do miracle after miracle, and they have done some miracles themselves. In verses 21-22, Jesus says to them that if they only had faith they would be able to wither the fig tree; if they truly understood that he was the Messiah and they were his disciples, they would be able to do miracles like cursing the fig tree or casting a mountain into the sea. They just need to pray to have faith—that is, eyes to see the truth.
This scenario works as a possible solution to what Jesus intended by cursing the fig tree, but there are a couple of fatal flaws in this line of thought. The consequence of only appearing to believe—that is, Jesus being angry and cursing them—does not fit his relationship to the disciples that we see elsewhere in the Gospel. Also, there does not appear to be any connection to this scenario and the passage before Jesus curses the fig tree (when he clears the temple) and the passage after he curses the tree (when the chief priests and scribes question his authority). Clearly, then, the fig tree does not represent the disciples. If the point of cursing the fig tree is to demonstrate the consequence of appearing to have fruit but not actually producing any, there must be another option.
So I looked again at the “parts” of Matthew 21:1-27 for clues to what or whom Jesus might consider “fruitless.” The first part (Matthew 1-17) is about Jesus coming to the temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent response of the chief priests and the scribes. The final part (Matthew 23-27) is about the chief priests and scribes in the temple questioning Jesus’ authority to do “these things.” So, the “whole” passage (Matthew 21:1-27) begins and ends with the temple and the chief priests, and the part about cursing the fig tree comes between. This suggests that the temple and the chief priests are linked to Jesus cursing the fig tree. [A parallel account in Mark 11:11-25 makes this link more explicit. Mark splits the passage about Jesus withering the fig tree into two parts and places Jesus cleansing the temple in between.] Using this link between the temple/chief priests and the fig-tree cursing, I then tried putting all the “parts” together into a coherent “whole.”
Matthew 21 begins with Jesus preparing to enter Jerusalem. He enters on a donkey with a multitude proclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David [the Messiah]” and the people in the city asking who the man being praised is (vv. 1-11). Then Jesus clears the temple of sellers and heals people:
And Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer;’ but you are making it a robbers’ den. And the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were crying out in the temple and saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant, and said to Him, “Do You hear what these [children] are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes thou hast prepared praise for thyself’?” (Matthew 21:12-16)
The fig-tree “part” has shown us that we should be looking for something or someone that appears to be bearing fruit but does not. And this first part provides the key to understanding who those “fruitless trees” are by showing us that those who witnessed the events of Matthew 21:1-17 reacted in different ways. The children seeing the “wonderful things” Jesus did cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” thereby recognizing Jesus as the promised Messiah. But the chief priests and scribes who see the same “wonderful things” respond with indignation, questioning Jesus’ authority and being indignant that he does not “correct” the children. The temple is supposed to be the house of God. If anyone should recognize the coming Messiah, it should be the chief priests and scribes in their roles as keepers and teachers of the temple. Yet, the chief priests and scribes who appear to be the servants of God do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah sent by God. They—and by extension, the temple itself—seem to be the fruitless tree Jesus has in mind when he curses the fig tree.
Now we come to the part about Jesus cursing the fig tree, which happens the next morning. Jesus curses the fig tree to present a parable, or puzzle, to the disciples. The fig tree metaphorically represents the temple as exemplified by the chief priests who give the appearance of representing God, but they do not bear fruit. As a result, the temple is going to wither as the fig tree withered. Jesus is also signaling that his ministry is reaching a culmination. The disciples do not understand the message at the time because they are focused on how quickly the fig tree withered. But Jesus tells them:
Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. (Matthew 21:21)
Jesus is telling his disciples that if they have faith and do not doubt, not only will they be able to perform miracles as he does, but they will also be able render judgment as he does, like withering a fig tree or even casting “this” mountain—the temple mount toward which they are heading—into the sea, thus destroying the temple. He then tells them, “everything you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” The context suggests that Jesus is telling them that they will have faith without doubting, and they will be able to do miraculous things if they pray to God. These things will be done in the context of their being his disciples and apostles.
The final part shifts to Jesus being questioned in the temple about the authority by which he does “these things.” Clearly, the chief priests and the scribes are not responding to Jesus with fruit, and so God will “curse and wither” the temple, which He did in 70 ad. Jesus is righteously angry with the chief priests and scribes for not bearing fruit.
Taken as a whole, then, Matthew 21:1-27 signifies a major change in Jesus’ ministry that begins with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and it highlights the degradation of the temple and the “fruitless” disbelief of the Jewish leaders. Between visits to the temple, Jesus enacts the fig-tree “parable,” signaling to his disciples that the end is near and that he wants them to think about what not bearing fruit means, especially as it applies to the Jewish leaders and the temple, which will be “cursed and withered.” Jesus’ death and resurrection are near at hand, and so he also talks to them about doubt and faith and their need to look to God. While many points need clarifying, this is the thrust of the passage as a whole.
The meaning of Jesus cursing the fig tree had previously evaded me. This time through, connecting “these things” in verse 23 with “the wonderful things” in verse 15, convinced me that they were parts of a whole and not a group of isolated parts. By trying to find the relationship of the parts to the whole, like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together, I arrived at a whole understanding that appears to be coherent. I will accept this understanding of the passage for the time being. As always, I reserve the right to change my interpretation if I have misunderstood a part or parts or someone presents a better way to organize the parts into a whole.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.