[by Dean Smith] In Matthew 21:18-22, we have the strange story of the fig tree. Jesus who was hungry saw a lone fig tree by the road and went to it looking for figs.
When He found no figs, Jesus cursed the tree and it withered and died. The disciples were shocked by what happened and Jesus gave them a brief teaching on faith and they continued their journey into Jerusalem.
However, what makes the story a bit odd is that it was not the season for the fig tree to produce fruit — which Mark notes (Mark 11:13). Jesus and the disciples knew this and in this odd statement we realize one thing — the story is not about the fig tree.
Mark also records that when the disciples saw the tree the next day, it had withered from the root up (Mark 11:20). The root was dead and there was no chance of regrowth.
Many have grappled with the meaning of this story. What was the message?
The Sandwich theory of Biblical interpretation
This passage I believe can best be explained using what some refer to as the “Sandwich theory” of Bible interpretation. Occasionally, the Gospel writers would be discussing an issue and suddenly they would drop in a completely unrelated story. Once they told the story, they then continued on with their original discussion.
According to the sandwich theory, if this happens the unrelated story is very much about what was being discussed — even though it may not seem to be. It is like a sandwich where you have bread on top and bread on the bottom and in the middle the roast beef or the main part of the sandwich.
What is plopped innocently in the middle is actually the core message.
The fig tree sandwich
So was this happening here? To make it a sandwich, the topic before and after the cursing of the fig tree must be the same.
In the verses before (verses 12 to 17), Matthew writes about Jesus going into the temple upending the money changer tables and driving out those who were buying and selling. Jesus was cleansing the temple of its corruption.
Then immediately after the fig tree story (v 23), we read how Jesus returned to the temple and was confronted by a group of priests and elders who were challenging Jesus on what He had done.
“By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they angrily demanded.
So according to the “sandwich theory,” since the story preceding the fig tree involved the temple and the priestly caste and the story immediately after is about the same things, then the cursing of the fig tree is also about the temple and the priests.
So let me paraphrase the fig tree story for you. When Jesus came to the temple, He was expecting to find it bearing fruit and meeting the spiritual needs of the people. Unlike the fig tree, there was no out of season for the temple.
Instead, Jesus found a corrupt temple, where hucksters were robbing the flock and priests were abusing the people with their endless rules and regulations.
Disgusted, by what He saw, Jesus or should we say God cursed the temple killing it.
And about three decades later, in 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple and it hasn’t been rebuilt since.
Though its physical destruction took place then, it makes you wonder if its real death took place three decades earlier at the cursing of the fig tree.
Mark adds that after He cursed the tree, Jesus said it would not bear fruit again (Mark 11:14), and some versions add “until the end of the age.”