Matthew 21: 18-22
Parallel Mark 11: 12-14, 20-26
18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
The symbolism in this scene is so rich, and perhaps the disciples miss the mountain for the fig tree but so have most modern readers. Although this can be simply read as a story about the power of faith, a reader immersed in the language of scripture and who has some awareness of location in the narrative will see how Matthew (and Mark beforehand) is tapping into a rich prophetic language of the conflict between the religious leaders of the temple and the prophets declaring God’s judgment on the temple. Perhaps a fig tree is simply a fig tree and a mountain merely a mountain in the narrative but with Matthew’s (and Mark’s) careful use of the language of scripture this is unlikely.
The fig tree is one of the central images for Israel. It can be used as an image of what prosperity in Israel looks like when Israel is faithful to God:
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees. Deuteronomy 8:7-8
But figs and fig trees are also frequently used by the prophets as images that reflect judgment:
Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; the is no first ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and the is no one left who is upright; Micah 7: 1-2a
Fig trees typically are harvested in June for early figs and in fall for mature figs. Although the Passover (in March/April) would be early for figs, the green figs which will develop will be on the tree. Yet, the symbolism of the fruitless tree, a tree which is an important image in Israel,which is cursed and withers is more than just Jesus reacting in hunger. This is a symbolic prophetic act, especially sandwiched between two times when Jesus enters the temple. The language of this action is also tied to the upcoming parable of the vineyard where the tenant refuse to provide the ‘fruits at the appointed time.’ It is possible that the disciples miss the significance of this action and are caught in the wonder of how Jesus did this action, but Matthew (and Mark beforehand) have crafted their narratives in ways that show that they understand this action as a, “symbolic act of one coming to judge those who do not bear fruit.” (Case-Winters 2015, 253)
Matthew places Jesus and the temple in conflict. The conflict between Jesus and the authorities in the temple as well as the talk of the coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) will consume much of the next four chapters. Jesus stands in a long prophetic tradition which condemns the way the temple and its worship has displaced the covenant life desired by the God of Israel. It is also significant to understand the location that Jesus is speaking from, the mountain he is moving towards is the temple mount and when Jesus says “even if you say to this mountain” it is not a generic mountain.
Faith in Matthew is an openness to what God is doing, and for Matthew and his community they expect God to be at work in the world bringing about the kingdom of heaven. A recurring theme in the next chapters will be the resistance, or lack of faith, among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. While Matthew views the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Rome as a judgment from God, much as Jeremiah would view Babylon’s destruction of temple and the city in his time, he also sees in this the beginning of God doing something new. Although I will note it frequently in the coming chapters, it is worth saying up front that Jesus’ primary conflict is with the leaders and not with the Jewish people. Matthew’s community is trying to figure out how to make sense of a radically transformed world where Jerusalem and the temple are no longer present and where they are trying to live faithful lives among the nations. Too often the texts that come at the end of Matthew have been used to justify the persecution or exclusion of the Jewish people, but Matthew, being the most Jewish of the gospels, calls for a much closer reading in light of the law, prophets and the psalms. That Jesus stands with a long line of Hebrew prophets who have condemned the actions of the temple and who call the people to a different vision of embodying the covenant should not be surprising, the crowds all seem to understand Jesus as a prophet. It also shouldn’t be surprising that Matthew’s community, living in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as most scholars believe, would remember words and actions of Jesus that help them understand the destruction of temple and city. The followers of Jesus will need faith to understand how they can move beyond the temple and Jerusalem to find their identity in the community of Christ. Faith may move mountains, but it also helps the disciples understand how to live their life once mountains have been moved.