These things took place on the way from Bethany to Jerusalem on Tuesday and Wednesday of Passover week (compare Mark 11:12-14, 20), and when Jesus entered the city on what was to be his last full day of unhindered teaching he was approached by the chief priests and elders of the people who demanded of him: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (v.23). Mark expands the list to say that Jesus was approached by “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” (Mark 11:27). These were the three groups that made up the Sanhedrin. So this was probably an official delegation, and what they were making clear, although their words were in the form of a question, is that they had not authorized either Jesus or his teaching. They were the authorities!

I do not think that Jesus’ disciples got the point of what he was saying at this time, because if they had understood him, it would have been natural for them to have asked something about the failures of the Pharisees or the shallow nature of their religious practices. They didn’t do this. Instead, they were amazed at the speed with which the fig tree withered and asked him to explain it: “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” (v.20).

Unless we understand this, Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree seems entirely out of character at best and petulant or mean at its worst. We must not think that Jesus was simply angry at the tree and struck out against it like a child might throw down a toy 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, that or any other religion will wither up at last, becoming as dry as a tree that is no longer nourished by its roots.

We are in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that I have titled “The King’s Final Break with Judaism,” and we should be aware of how this is unfolding by now. We have had two symbolic actions: 1) the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in 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 2) the cleansing of the temple, which would be no more permanent now than it had proved to be the first time. In the verses we come to now we have a third symbolic action: the cursing and withering of the fig tree.

Nothing in the Gospel of Matthew is put down randomly. We have noticed that many times already. Now we have two further examples. If religion is not buying and selling—if it is not the thriving religious establishments of the Jewish past or the evangelical present—then, what is it? We can hardly miss the answer Matthew gives. He says here that it is two things.