He and they were returning to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives nearby where they had spent the night. Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry, and when he spotted a fig tree already leafed out he went to pull off some figs. But, he found it had no fruit, only leaves. He cursed it on the spot, and it withered immediately (Matt. 21:18-20).
It appears that in Palestine, the fig trees bore their fruit at the same time as they leafed out. With this in mind for this tree to have leaves and no fruit was a deception of nature. It was a perfect symbol of hypocrisy and the consequent results.
So for Jesus to curse that tree was not a burst of petulance. Instead it was an acted parable, pointing to something quite beyond the miracle itself.
The cursing of the fig tree was a kind of prophecy to the disciples that Israel itself was about to be cursed for its fruitlessness. The nation had the trappings of religion – the rituals and the priestly garb and the sacred offices. Especially at the leadership level it was fully leafed out with holy spectacle.
But, at the same time, this whole religious system was being cunningly used to bring about the murder of an innocent man. Jesus’ message to them had in it the ring of truth but it pressed them in a direction they weren’t willing to go.
For the religious establishment then or now, hypocrisy is always a peril to be guarded against.
This is something to ponder during Holy Week. It is a time to check for hypocrisy in our own lives. Here are some questions worth considering: Do I love truth as God gives me to see it and are my loyalties clearly lined up with the truth of the Gospel? Do I love what God loves and hate what he hates? As I attempt to walk in faith, do I exhibit the open-faced graces the Holy Spirit cultivates like truthfulness, mercy, humility, kindness, forbearance, and above all, love?
Jesus made no direct application when asked to explain his action towards the fig tree. He simply responded by calling them to deeper faith. He promised them “If you believe you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matt. 21:22).
This exhortation to genuine faith may seem unrelated to the miracle of the cursing of the fig tree. But active, obedient faith in God is the best antidote to hypocrisy in its many subtle forms. And that same faith is the path to a fruitful Christian life.