Theme: The Tragedy of Rejecting Jesus
This week’s lessons contrast the unbelief and unrighteous behavior of the religious leaders with the humble dependence of those who came to Jesus in faith.
Scripture: Matthew 21:12-17
Immediately after this, having driven out the money changers, he passes by this fig tree. We’re told that he was hungry and he went to it. But since he found nothing on it he cursed it saying, “May you never bear fruit again,” and the fig tree withered. What’s that all about? That’s an unusual story, isn’t it? Are we to think when we read a story like that that the Lord Jesus Christ was just subject to the kinds of fits of temperament that you are I are often subjected to—that he was petulant or angry because he wanted to find figs and there weren’t any? People who study this know that at this particular time of year it wasn’t even the season to find figs. If that was the case, he was cursing the fig tree for failing to do something it was not expected to do at that time of year.
You say, that isn’t right. But this is a symbol, you see. It’s a symbol of fruitlessness. And in the context what that really means is that this is the Lord’s judgment upon Israel. These religious leaders were the guardians of the Old Testament revelation. They were the ones who were to preserve and embody the true religion. When the Lord Jesus Christ, who was God incarnate, came to collect fruit of those leaders who were meant to bear fruit, he found no fruit at all. As a result of that he pronounced judgment on them, which the story of the fig tree suggests and the cleansing of the temple portrays in graphic terms.
In verse 28 you have something else. Here he tells a parable, and it’s a parable of two sons. The man went to his sons and he said, “I want you to go and work in my vineyard today.” The first said, “No,” but then later he changed his mind and went. The other son said, “Oh, yes, of course I’ll do that,” but he didn’t actually do it. Anybody who has children know what that’s like. Jesus asked them which of the two did what his father wanted. They said the first, the one who although he said no actually ended up doing it in the final analysis.
Jesus wanted the religious leaders to understand what that means. Speaking to them, he was saying that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of you because although in terms of their lifestyle they have for years been saying no to the gospel, nevertheless, when I come and the gospel is finally preached, they repent of their sin and believe, and they enter. In your case, you’re the ones who throughout your whole lives have been saying, “Yes, Lord, we’ll do anything you say,” but your hearts are so far from me that you’re more interested in money than you are in the souls of men.
And then he told the story of the tenant farmers. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, got it all ready, went away on a journey, and left these tenant farmers to take care of it. When the time of the harvest came he sent servants back to collect what was his due, and these tenant farmers were most inhospitable toward the servants. We’re told they seized them, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. The landowner said finally, look, I’ll send my son. Maybe they’ll have respect for him. And when the son came, instead of showing respect for him, they said, “Look, this is the heir. Let’s kill him and take his inheritance, and then the vineyard will be ours.”
Jesus then asked the question, “What is the landowner going to do when he comes?” They knew the answer to that. They said that he is going to deal with those wretches in a wretched way. They’re going to have a wretched end, and he’s going to rent the vineyard to other tenants. Jesus said, of course, that is exactly what is happening here.
At the very end of this chapter it says, “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees understood that he was talking about them.” They say they knew what it was about, but they had failed to bear fruit. They had failed to obey. They had failed to love the one who had entrusted the work to them.
Now the Lord took great action here, of course, as you know. But what I want to point out is a phrase with which the story of the cleansing of the temple ends. It’s very emphatic here in Matthew’s Gospel. In verse 17 we’re told, “And he left them.” You know earlier in that story of the rich young man who had come to him and wanted to be his disciple and was unwilling to pay the price, when you get to the end of that story, in 19:22, it says that this man left Jesus and went away sorrowful. That’s not nearly as bad because even though he went away sorrowful it might have happened, perhaps, someday, that he would have repented of his ways and had come back. But you see, here it’s much more serious because now it’s not a question of these leaders of the people leaving Jesus—though certainly they had done that in their hearts long, long ago—but it’s a case of Jesus leaving them. This brings us back almost to the point I started out with, that this is Jesus’ final break with Judaism.
What did Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree symbolize?
Explain the meaning of the parable of the two sons and the parable of the tenant farmers?
Application: Are there any ways in which our hearts are not as they should be, even as we give the impression that our relationship with God is as it should be?