We must not think that Jesus (Mt.21.18-27), was simply angry at the tree and struck out against it like a child might throw down a cell phone and break it just because he can’t make it work. Jesus was not being petulant. He was teaching an important lesson with two points. First, the religion of Israel, focused in her leaders, was not producing fruit. It was a case of blatant hypocrisy. Second, any religion like it will always wither up at last, becoming as dry as a tree that is no longer nourished by its roots.
We come now to Jesus’ final break with Judaism, and we should be aware by now of how it is unfolding. We have read about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem by which the Lord presented Himself as Israel’s true King, knowing that He would be rejected by both the leaders and the masses of the people; and another symbolic action, the cleansing of the temple, which would be no more permanent this time than it had proven to be the first time. In the verses we come to now, we find a third symbolic action: the cursing and withering of the fig tree.
“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 did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the son of David!” they were indignant … Jesus said to them, …have you never read, “’Out of the mouths of infants … you have prepared praise?’”
When Jesus drove the money changers (Mt.21.12-17) and those who were selling animals for sacrifice from the Court of the Gentiles, He justified His action by a comparison of two Old Testament phrases. In the first, Isaiah referred to the temple as a “house of prayer” (Isaiah 56.7). In the second, Jeremiah says that the hypocritical worshipers of his day had caused the temple to become “a den of robbers” (7.11). Jeremiah was writing about hypocrisy. Jesus used the word robbers to describe the unjust extortion that was going on. But hypocrisy must also have been on His mind, as the story about the barren fig tree that follows shows.
The twenty-first chapter of Matthew marks the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry, though we are only two-thirds of the way through the Gospel at this point. Matthew 21 marks this beginning because it records the events leading to Jesus’ final break with Judaism. We looked at one of these events in the last study: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Monday (Mt.21.1-11). Jesus intended it as a presentation of Himself to Israel as her Messiah and King. It provoked the praise of the people as well as the hostility of the religious leaders. The second event is the one we come to now: the cleansing of the temple (vv.12-17).
“And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee’” (Matthew 21).