Case study on Matthew 21,18-22, Mark 11,12-14, 20-24 and Luke 13,6-9
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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.
(a) Entry in Jerusalem
(b) Visit to the Temple
(c) Return to Bethany
(d) Jesus curses the tree
(e) Jesus explains
the curse with a parable
(f) Jesus cleanses the Temple
(g) Children's praise
(h) The Pharisees are angry
(i) Return to Bethany
(j) Jesus curses the tree (see d
(k) The tree dried up
(l) "Trust in prayer"
(m) Dispute in the Temple on Jesus' Authority
Figtree on Mount Olives photo by David Q.
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
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
13. He sawin the distance a fig tree
covered with leaves so he went
to itto see if he could find any figs on
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
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]
next morning as they walked along the road, they saw the fig
tree. It was dead all the way down to its
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
23. You can say to this hill, 'Get up and throw yourself in
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
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.
Jesus' action of cursing the free is to be
understood as a prophetic symbolic action warning the religious leaders at
(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
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
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
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
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].
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
Conclusion: St. Matthew simplified the story by putting
the doctrine immediately in Jesus' own mouth, omitting out the attempted answer
of the scribe.
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
"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
Of course, in such a report we find many details, but they
obscure what really happened. The importance of the incident was:
the Roman officer asked Jesus for help;
he had such great faith that he told Jesus that it was not
necessary for Jesus to visit his house in person;
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
"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
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'
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
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
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.