“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.
“When the disciples saw it they marveled, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ And 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’” (Matthew 21:18-21).
Mark’s version adds important chronological details. Picture this sequence of events: Jesus and friends starting off from Bethany to Jerusalem, and the Master becomes hungry. Spotting a tree with leaves, Jesus goes up to it but is disappointed to find no fruit. He is left hungry, having been deceived by the promise of nourishment.
Soon the men arrive in Jerusalem, and the Temple of God, which also offers the promise of something nourishing and lovely. But instead Jesus finds rank greed and materialism, nothing satisfying for the pilgrim’s soul—the second disappointment of the day. In both cases, there is at first an allure that would attract a hungry seeker: a leafy tree is beautiful, the Temple is beautiful (Matthew 24:1-2). But when one draws closer in hopes of finding reality behind the promise, one’s hopes are dashed. Jesus takes whips to the temple precinct and upends tables.
The two incidents are undoubtedly connected. Jesus is having a bad day, in a sense. He is confronted with false veneers wherever he goes. The curse Jesus puts on the tree is symbolic of the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s leaders are white-washed tombs, looking good on the outside but full of dead men’s bones.
On an entirely different note, it strikes me, as a 21st century person, that when Jesus curses the tree and it dies, the astounded apostles do not say, “Why did you kill a poor innocent tree?” Instead they think it’s really cool and want to know how Jesus did it. Jesus tells them they can do it too if they have enough faith. There ensues no discussion of the feelings of trees or their civil rights. Evidently, Jesus does not consider plants to be on the same level of being as men.