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Jesus curses the fig tree


Case study on Matthew 21,18-22, Mark 11,12-14, 20-24 and Luke 13,6-9

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First Observation

Matthew and Mark differ slightly in their arrangement of events of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem. Mark's arrangements would seem to follow the original source more closely.

 
Mark
Matthew
Luke

 

Day One    

(a) Entry in Jerusalem

11,1-10
21,1-11 19,28-38

(b) Visit to the Temple

11,11a
   

(c) Return to Bethany

11,11b
   

 

Next Day    

(d) Jesus curses the tree

11,12-14
   
(e) Jesus explains the curse with a parable    
13,6-9

(f) Jesus cleanses the Temple

11,15-17
21,12-13
19,47-46

(g) Children's praise

 
21,14-16
19,39-40

(h) The Pharisees are angry

11,18
 
19,47-48

(i) Return to Bethany

11,19
21,17
 

 

Third Day
Next Day
 

(j) Jesus curses the tree (see d above)

 
21,18-19b
 

(k) The tree dried up

11,20-21
21,19c-20
 

(l) "Trust in prayer"

11,22-24
21,21-22
 

(m) Dispute in the Temple on Jesus' Authority

11,27-33
21,23-27
20,1-8

 

     

Figtree on Mount Olives
photo by David Q. Hall

Examining the survey we note the following points,

(i) MATTHEW and MARK obviously both knew the same chain of traditions in the oral catechesis, in which some important events were related to each other:

  • the entry into Jerusalem;
  • the cleansing of the Temple;
  • spending the night at Bethany;
  • the curse on the fig tree;
  • Jesus' explanation regarding prayer;
  • the dispute in the Temple.

(ii) MARK narrates these events as having happened in three days. This is clear because he says explicitly that Jesus spent two nights in Bethany (Mark 11,11b; 1 1,19). MARK cannot have any special reason for making this arrangement, since Jesus' first visit to the Temple on the first day (Mark ll,lla) is not stressed by MARK as of great importance. We may therefore, presume that MARK simply followed tradition as he found it.

MATTHEW, however, narrates the events as having happened in two days. This is clear from the fact that he introduces the night spent in Bethany only in 21,17.

(iii) Mark divides tbe episode of cursing the fig tree over two days. Jesus spoke the curse on the second day (Mark 11, 12-14) and gave the explanation on the third day (Mark 11, 20-24).

MATTHEW puts the entire event in the same day (Matthew 21,18-22). Again MARK would seem to follow tradition precisely as he finds it.

We observe, consequently, that MARK adheres to a three days' arrangement and a division of the fig tree episode. MATTHEW arranges everything within two days, the episode of the fig tree falls entirely within his second day. LUKE has preserved the parable through which Jesus explained the curse.

Second Observation

MATTHEW has simplified the account of the fig tree.

This simplification may be seen from this accurate comparison of the text in MATTHEW and MARK We underline what is proper to each.

Mark chapter 11
Matthew chapter 21
12. The next day, as they were coming back from Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

18. On his way back to the city, the next morning, Jesus was hungry.

13. He sawin the distance a fig tree covered with leaves so he went to itto see if he could find any figs on it;

19a. He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to it,

but when he came to it he found only leaves, because it was not the right time for figs.

19b. but found nothing on it except leaves.

14. Jesus said to the fig tree, "No one shall ever eat figs from you again!" And his disciples heard him.

19c. So he said to the tree, "you will never again bear fruit!"

[visit to Temple: vs. 15-18]
 
[return to Bethany where Jesus and his disciples spent the night : v. 19]
 
20. Early next morning as they walked along the road, they saw the fig tree. It was dead all the way down to its roots.

19d. At once the fig tree dried up.

21. Peter remembered what had happened and said to Jesus, "Look, Teacher, the fig tree you cursed has died."

20. The disciples saw this and were astounded. "How did the fig tree dry up so quickly?," they asked.

22. "Remember this". Jesus answered, If you have faith in God,

21. "Remember this", Jesus answered,"If you believe and do not doubt you will be able to do what I have done to this fig tree:

23. You can say to this hill, 'Get up and throw yourself in the sea'.

If you do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will happen, it will be done for you!

not only this, you will be able to say to this hill, 'Get up and throw yourself in the sea,' and it will."

24. For this reason I tell you, "When vou pray and ask for something, believe that you have received it, and everything will be given you."

22. "If you believe, you will receive whatever you asked for in prayer."

From the comparison of the two texts we observe,

MARK gives more historical details:

  • that the tree was far off (v.13 );
  • that it was not the time figs (v. 13 );
  • that the tree had withered only on the next day (v. 20);
  • that it was withered down to its roots (v. 20);
  • that Peter asked the question (v. 21).

MATTHEW omits these details. He says that the tree withered at once (vs. 19). In other words, he abbreviates and simplifies.

Third Observation

Jesus' action of cursing the free is to be understood as a prophetic symbolic action warning the religious leaders at Jerusalem.

(a) Tradition has linked Jesus' words on trust in prayer to the cursing of the fig tree (see Mark 11,22-24; Matthew 21,21-22). No doubt, this exhortation of Jesus did belong to Jesus' explanatory discussion on the day afterwards.

However, the action of cursing the fig tree itself was a prophetic symbolic gesture, warning the religious leaders of Jerusalem about God's impatience with them. This was not unlike the action of the prophet Jeremiah who smashed an earthernware jug to a thousand pieces with these words: "The Lord of Hosts says this: 'I am going to break this people and this city as one breaks a potter's pot, irreparably!' " (read Jeremiah 19,1-11).

This interpretation is clear from the context:

  • Jesus looks for figs although He knows that it is not the time for fruits. He must, therefore, have had another reason.
  • It is stressed that the tree had many leaves but no fruits. The tree is obviously the symbol of a person who shows outward virtue without real sanctity.
  • Jesus is on his way to the Temple where he will drive out the merchants from the holy precincts. In other words: he has examined Jerusalem for true fruits of sanctity, but has found only leaves.

Thc curse of the fig tree is a warning to Jerusalem. If it will not produce fruits, it will be destroyed.

(c) This symbolic meaning was clear to the disciples.

  • They were familiar with prophetic gestures decribed in Scripture.
  • Jesus' action had been described before as that of a gardener judging trees. "The axe is ready to cut the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3,10).
  • Jesus also explained his action in a parable:

    "A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but he found none. So he said to the gardener, 'Look, for three years I have come here looking for figs on this fig tree and I haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using the soil?' But the gardener answered, 'Leave it alone, sir, just this one year; I will dig a trench round it and fill it up with fertilizer. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you will have to cut it down'." (Luke 13,6-9)

We may, therefore, conclude that the apostles (and the evangelists also!) understood the symbolical meaning of Jesus' action. They saw in it a warning to Jerusalem whose meaning was obvious to Jews who were familiar with prophetic actions. Luke omits the account of the curse of the fig tree from his Gospel because he wrote for Hellenistic converts in Greece and Asia Minor. They would not have understood the symbolism.

(c) The fact that the fig tree actually dried up so soon - on a mere word of Jesus - raised an additional question: What is the power of prayer? For Jesus' word (No one shall eat from you!) had been taken as a prayer concerning the tree. So Jesus takes the occasion to teach them about the power of prayer. Prayer is very powerful, if only we have sufficient faith. The disciples will do great things by prayer, if they trust in God. Both aspects, the symbolical warning to Jerusalem and the example of a powerful prayer, were preserved in the tradition of oral catechesis [is the oral teaching of what Jesus had said and done].

Fourth Observation

MATTHEW often simplifies narrative in his Gospel.

We can illustrate this point with some concrete examples,

a. LUKE tells us that the Roman officer sent friends to Jesus to say, "Sir don't trouble yourself; I do not deserve to have you come into my house, etc." (Luke 7,6ff)

MATTHEW tells the story as if the Roman officer himself came. "When Jesus entered Capharnaum, a Roman oflicer met him and begged for help... "Oh, no sir", said the officer, "I do not deserve to have you come into my house; etc." (Matthew 8,5ff).

Conclusion: St Matthew simplifies the story by cutting out the intermediary persons.

b. MARK and LUKE narrate that Jesus commanded the two disciples who were going to prepare for the Last Supper, that they were to follow a man carrying a jug of water. This man would bring them to the house where they could prepare the Pasch (Mark 14,12-14; Luke 22,7-11).

MATTHEW reports Jesus as saying, "Go to a certain man in the city and tell him '' (Matthew 26,17-18)

Conclusion: St Matthew simplifies the story by cutting out the incident of the man carrying the jug of water.

c. From LUKE we learn that Jesus drew the statement on the Greatest Commandment from the lips of the scribe. The scribe says, "You must love the Lord your God and You must love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus then approves of this answer (Luke 10,25-28).

MATTHEW puts the words directly into Jesus' own mouth. "Jesus answered, 'You must love the Lord your God. You must love your neighbour as yourself' "

Conclusion: St. Matthew simplified the story by putting the doctrine immediately in Jesus' own mouth, omitting out the attempted answer of the scribe.

SCIENTIFIC HYPOTHESIS

A reconstruction of the history of the account of the fig tree.

ORIGINAL EVENT. Jesus cursed the fig tree when on his way to cleanse the Temple. It was a symbolic warning to Jerusalem. He explained it to them also by telling the parable of the fig tree. On the following day, when passing again, the disciples expressed surprise at the efficacy of Jesus' curse. Jesus then taught about the power of prayer.

TRADITION. In the oral preaching these various elements were carefully transmitted.

THE WRITTEN GOSPELS

MARK related the events in his Gospel as he found them in Peter's teaching. He omitted mentioning the parable since the purpose of Jesus' gesture seemed obvious.

LUKE however omitted narrating the cursing of the fig tree because non-Jewish converts were not used to the symbolic actions of prophets. The curse of the fig tree might have been misunderstood by them. But he preserved Jesus' parable on the fig tree.

MATTHEW abbreviated the narration of events in line with his usual procedure. Immediately after the glorious entry into Jerusalem he puts the cleansing of the Temple, thereby reducing what happened in two days to a one-day event. Because of this, he also had to simplify the story of the tree. Both the curse and the explanation of the drying up were now put together as if they happened on one day.

Conclusions on how to interpret the Gospels

We will restrict our attention to one focal question. This question concerns the accuracy of historical narratives. Have the evangelists been accurate when writing down the deeds of Jesus?

We may recall these facts:

  • Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple did not happen on one day. MATTHEW, however, puts both deeds of Jesus on the same day.
  • Matthew states that the fig tree withered at once. But the historical sequence was that Jesus cursed the fig tree on one day, while only on the following day the tree was seen dried up by the disciples.

We will discuss the matter in the form of a dialogue. The questions will help us to focus on the kernel of the problem.

Question One. Did Matthew, by his simplification, not falsify the facts? If the tree was found withered after one day, how could he say that it 'withered at once'?

REPLY. Matthew did in no way falsify the facts, even though he changes a detail for the sake of his narrative. We should remember that 'falsification' presupposes the intention of changing facts with the purpose of deceiving others.

In the case at hand, as in all examples of simplification in Matthew's Gospel, Matthew had no intention of deceiving. He did not say that the tree withered at once to make it a greater miracle. As we have analysed in our reconstruction, the need of putting the whole episode of the curse together arose from Matthew's anxiety to be as brief as possible. The miracle remains substantially the same, whether the tree withers at once or in the course of one day. Matthew is not worried about this detail. He wants us to know, (a) that Jesus cursed the tree; (b) that it withered miraculously; and (c) that Jesus joined some teaching on prayer to the occasion. His putting these three aspects together has merely a practical purpose.

There is another fact we should remember. Reporting on any event always includes simplification. Suppose newspapers report on the Pope's journey to Bogota. In actual fact this journey lasted for many days. The Pope spoke with hundreds of people. The Pope was busy day and night in various occupations. A complete report of all details would necessitate the bringing out of a hundred-volume encyclopedia, or even more. But journalists have to write reports varying from a few lines to a few pages. To write their report they have to select. Selection means simplification and cutting out details. The simplification is done according to the journalists' specific purpose. If a reporter writes for the London Times, he may put in details about English missionaries in Bogota. If she writes for a Women's Magazine, she may comment on the dress of the Prime Minister's wife when she met the Pope at the airfield, and so on.

Now it is good to realise that every simplification involves some inaccuracy of detail. Let us take a proper look at a typical sample of such a journalistic report:

"The Holy Father left the President's house at eight o'clock. He shook hands with the President and his wife, waved to the crowds, and then stepped into the car. His car moved away ahead. The other dignitaries followed in ten more cars, provided by the Columbian State. People cheered the Pope all along the route".

Let us imagine that another reporter was present. She might accuse our journalist of inaccuracy of detail, pointing out,

  • "The Holy Father left not at eight but at five minutes past eight."
  • "He shook hands with ten other people, besides the President and his wife".
  • "He actually first shook hands with the hostess and only after that with her husband, the President".
  • "He had waved to the crowds also before shaking hands with the President and his wife".
  • "He put on his skullcap and whispered something to his private secretary, before stepping into the car."
  • "He was not first in the queue because police on motorbikes opened the retinue of cars". etc. etc.

Probably the second reporter is correct in these details. Yet we cannot for that reason blame the first reporter, For he does not want to go into all such details, neither can he do so The accuracy of detail is part and parcel of his report yet he gives us what is substantially correct. He does not have the intention to deceive us and we know what accuracy of detail to expect and what not to expect We know that he has to limit his narrative, we know that he selects the detail according to his specific purpose. He is not falsifying, neither are we deceived.

And so it is with the evangelists. They necessarily have to simplify and to select. Through this selection there will be an inaccuracy of detail inherent in their narrative. We should know this and we must read the narratives as they were intended to be read. The evangelists want to recount the substance of the facts and their theological meaning, not details that do not matter. Whether the entry into Jerusalem with the triumphal procession and the cleansing happened on one day or on two successive days, did not make any difference to Matthew.

Whether the fig tree withered at once or in the course of a few minutes did not change the miracle for him. He narrates what Jesus did, the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the Temple the cursing of the fig tree, without bothering much about the sequence of time.

Conclusion: The Gospels give us accurately the substantial facts of Jesus' life. Inaccuracy of detail, however, was unavoidable because of the nature of such simplified narrative and because of the theological interest of the evangelists.

Question two. Could the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Gospels not have seen to it that such historical inaccuracies would not appear in the Gospels?

Reply. The Holy Spirit certainly guarantees that no deviations from revealed truth were written down in the Gospels.

On the other hand it is clear that the Holy Spirit allowed the evangelists to simplify accounts and select details in the natural way employed by human writers. There is a great lesson in this.

The Holy Spirit wants us to know thc substantial truth of Jesus' deeds, but not every detail which our curiosity might wish to know.

Neither should we think that abundance of accurate detail constitutes the most important norm for true reporting. Let us suppose that a modern reporter would have been in Capernaum when Jesus was approached by the Roman officer (see Matthew 8,5-13).

"An interesting incident occurred on that day. It was a quarter to eleven. Jesus sat on a stone in a corner of the market place. Many people stood around him, especially some merchants from Massabah who happened to be in the city on business. Jochanan was their leader, a man reputed for dishonest trade. While Jesus was talking about the needs of renouncing wealth and being satisfied with God's providence, this Jochanan kept distracting the audience by shifting his mule, which he kept by hand, moving it forwards and backwards. Also some chicken caused consternation when a woman dropped her basket full of hens just next to the place of Jesus' instruction. Just then some scribes came near and moved into the centre of the group. They had been sent by Publius Quartus, a Roman officer stationed in the town. One of the scribes, whose precise words I could not follow because of his terrible Galilean accent, spoke highly of Publius. Another one kept interrupting him, trying to outdo him in praise. Both stressed the fact that Publius had spent half a talent of his own money for the reconstruction of the synagogue. They said that this Publius was worried about Anamelek, one of his servants who was seriously ill. They asked Jesus to visit his house. They said that Publius himself had sent them with this request. Well hearing this, Jesus stood up and made ready to go to the officer's house in the Roman quarter of the city.But then some others came with a new message. The officer had sent them to say that it would not be necessary for Jesus to come to his house. Could he not do the cure from a distance? etc. etc."
thus the imaginary reporter

Of course, in such a report we find many details, but they obscure what really happened. The importance of the incident was:

  1. the Roman officer asked Jesus for help;
  2. he had such great faith that he told Jesus that it was not necessary for Jesus to visit his house in person;
  3. Jesus cured the slave and praised the Roman officer.

This is precisely what we find in MATTHEW:

"When Jesus entered Capharnaum, a Roman officer met him and begged for help, "Sir, my servant is home sick in bed, unable to move, and suffering terribly."

"I will go and make him well", Jesus said.

"Oh no sir", answered the officer, "I do not deserve to have you come into my house, etc . . .' (Matthew 8,5-8)

Matthew's narrative is very sober indeed, but it gives the real thing that matters All the details of bystanders, intermediaries, circumstances are not important. What matters is: Jesus' encounter with the Roman officer, the man's faith and Jesus' answer. For this contains the theological lesson to us. MATTHEW's report, even if simplifying detail, is far more accurate.

Conclusion. The Holy Spirit guarantees - by inspiration - that the Gospels proclaim Jesus' deeds truthfully. This does not mean that all details are historically accurate. It means that the Evangelists truthfully and correctly report on the true meaning of Jesus' deeds.

Question three. What details then can we believe regarding the cursing of the fig tree?

REPLY. Your question requires more than a superficial answer.

It is obvious that many of the historical details given in the Gospels are accurate to a very high degree. This can be proved, both by our analysis of the parallel traditions, and by archeological studies. But we should ask ourselves seriously, if God really wants us to concentrate so much attention on the details.

We have studied the account of the fig tree in Mark and Matthew. What do these two evangelists want to teach us about Jesus cursing the fig tree? What do they - under inspiration - want us to remember and believe? Are they concerned about the smaller details? Manifestly, they are not.

MATTHEW does not seem to worry whether the events happened on one day or on two. This by itself should be a lesson to us. The Holy Spirit apparently does not want us to get lost in details. Profane details such as how old the fig tree was and how high, whether there were more trees or only one, whether it belonged to this person or that, are not part of Christ's message. In fact, knowing such profane details might satisfy our curiosity; it would not help, our faith.

Of greater importance is the meaning of the event. Both Matthew and Mark witness to this. Jesus cursed the fig tree and it withered. God expects us to produce fruits of repentance and virtue. There can be no shade of doubt about this. Mark gives us the traditional account with the two stages of the symbolic act (on one day) and further instruction (on the next day). Matthew puts it all on one day in his narrative for practical reasons of composition. What matters to both of them is our faith and responding to Jesus' teaching.

Jesus' curse of the fig tree has a meaning. It is this meaning that matters. It is this meaning for which the evangelists noted it down. As we have seen before, the curse of the fig tree is connected with Jesus' judicial power. Jesus came to examine the worship in the Temple. He was going to find it a purely external show without true inner devotion, leaves without fruit. "These people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Matthew 15,8; cf. 21,12-17; 23,1-39). Jesus' terrible seriousness expressed in his withering the fig tree, serves ss a warning to Jerusalem - but also to us!

For just as the Pharisees in the Temple we may make our prayer and religious life an "external show" without true inner love for God. Jesus' words in the gardener's parable (Luke. 13,6-9) prove that God is willing to give us some respite for true conversion, but God will ultimately judge us with full severity; Jesus' curse of the fig tree forces us to acknowledge Jesus as our judge. It also makes us examine our consciences whether we are producing real fruit and not only leaves.

Jesus made the incident the occasion for another lesson on prayer. We can share his power if we have trust in God. Of course, Jesus presupposes that we will ask for something that agrees with the promotion of God's Kingdom -- after all, he performed the prophetic action in the context of promoting God's Kingdom. He does not promise, therefore, that any silly request of ours will be granted -- and often we don't know ourselves how silly our request may be in God's eyes. But if we ask for something we or others need for salvation we may count on God's omnipotence to assist us. We will do greater things than drying-up a fig tree, said Jesus. But for this solid faith, a strong confidence, a complete trust in God is required (Matthew 21,21; Mark 11,22-24).

Conclusion. When reading the Gospels we should accept them for the kind of writing they are. We should focus on the meaning of Jesus' words and deeds rather than on historical detail.

The parable of the figtree

Now listen again to Luke's parable of the figtree and reflect on its full meaning.

© John Wijngaards

Credits

Much of the text in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly is based on publications by John Wijngaards, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.