Text: Matthew 21
Event(s): Jesus’ triumphal entry; Jesus cleanses the temple; The fig tree is cursed and withers; Jesus’ authority is questioned; The parable of the two sons; The parable of the wicked vinedressers
We have some overlapping of events with today’s text and the text we’ve read the last couple of days. So today, we will pick up with the story of the fig tree. Yet in order to understand the full context of this event, I’d recommend reading Mark 11:12-14.
Matthew 21:19 “He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves…” With a fig tree, the fruit is first formed and then the leaves appear. So to see a tree that had leaves suggested the tree should also have fruit. But this one didn’t. Jesus saw this as an opportunity to teach His disciples an important truth. Throughout the Bible, the fig tree is used as a symbol of Israel (Jeremiah 8, Nahum 3, Hosea 9). So this was an illustration of the large number of people who did not believe, within the nation of Israel. God had looked to that generation of Israelites for spiritual fruit, as Jesus had hoped to find physical fruit on the fig tree. Ad while Israel’s outward display of religious vitality was impressive, like the leaves on the tree, it bore no spiritual fruit of righteousness. It was hypocritical. Jesus cursed the tree to teach them the lesson, not because the tree failed to produce fruit. It was also a warning to not just look on outward appearances, but to look for what really matters. What is fruit? Consider Galatians 5:22-23; the fruit of the Spirit.
Matthew 21:21 “you will not only do what was done to the fig tree…” No, this doesn’t mean we should walk around looking for trees, plants or other things to curse. But it is a lesson in the power of prayer and the potency of our faith. What Jesus was showing us is that we have the power to cease works that are ineffective and to speak life that which is effective and fruitful.
Matthew 21:23 “By what authority are You doing these things?” Jesus had cleansed the temple and was now teaching (as He had done several times before). But their question implies not an inquisitive openness, but an already established rejection of who He was and that they were aiming to gather evidence they could later use to prosecute Him. No one would have dared to venture to do the things Jesus did or teach without proper Rabbinic authorization. At this time in Israel’s history the Roman authorities appointed these leaders. So they wanted to know “what authority” Jesus had, and “who” had given Him “this authority” to do what He did, since they had not.
Matthew 21:28-32 “The parable of the two sons” Both of these parables that follow speak to Israel’s reaction to Jesus. They are both parables of judgment. This first parable condemned the conduct of these leaders. It showed that they condemned themselves by judging Jesus as they did. Even though right in their midst, the most unlikely people were repenting and turning to God. Yet these pretenders wouldn’t.
Matthew 21:35-36 “they beat one, killed one, and stoned another” These verses speak to the fact that Israel’s leaders had beaten and killed prophets who had previously been sent by God. This second parable pronounces even more severe judgment on Israel, which had not only maltreated God’s prophets through the ages, but was now conspiring to kill His Son! Israel’s leaders did not reject Jesus because it was not clear who He was, but because they refused to submit to His authority.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” Luke 13:34
Today’s Takeaway: Hardness of heart does not happen overnight. It happens in degrees. One tiny step, willingly taken, away from the truth, followed by another, and then another. Or, sometimes it starts with one choice. A choice to ignore the prompting of God in our hearts, followed by a second time and then another….and another. And before you know it, we’ve silenced or at least turned down the volume of the voice of God speaking in our hearts so much that it becomes faint. I read these stories of the Pharisees and see how hard their hearts had become. The truth was right in front of them! Yet they couldn’t (and wouldn’t) accept it. But I also know, they didn’t get there overnight. The hardness of their hearts was like a callous that had been formed, layer upon layer. Choice upon choice. But here’s the good news, and what I also know to be true: that the more we listen, obey and follow Him, the louder His voice and the softer our hearts become. And so my takeaway for today, is a reminder to listen and obey in even the smallest of things. Because if something as simple as a shoe can produce a callous on my foot, or a pencil produce a callous on my hand, anything is capable of producing a callous on my heart.
“That is why the Holy Spirit says, “Today when you hear His voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled…” Hebrews 3:7-8
Additional (optional) reading: Additional parallel accounts of today’s events can be found in Mark 11:27-33, Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:1-18