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Why Did Jesus Curse the Fig Tree and Cleanse the Temple of the Money Changers

by Brant Pitre September 27, 2019 0 Comments



 In Mark 11:12-21, it says this:

On the following day [meaning after Palm Sunday], when they came from Bethany [which was a little town outside of Jerusalem], he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Interesting. Even Jesus was grumpy on Monday, apparently. I mean, this is very clear, right? Golly, Jesus, you know...what did the poor tree ever do to you? If you can’t be nice to trees, who can you be nice to, you know? It’s mysterious, isn’t it? It’s weird. Alright, well, something is going on here. But let’s keep going. It says:

And they came to Jerusalem. [It’s the same day.] And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple. And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 

Now, I didn’t put it in there, but he’s quoting there, Isaiah chapter 56. We’ll come back to that in a second.

And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came [so Monday] they went out of the city.

Now watch this:

As they passed by in the morning [so this would be Holy Tuesday], they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” (Mark 11:12-21)

End of Gospel. Alright, so two things going on...very mysterious. Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? And why does He make a mess in the temple? I mean, I know we usually call it the Cleansing of the Temple, but He doesn’t really cleanse it, does He? He makes a giant mess! He goes in, He turns over the tables of the moneychangers, right? He drives out those who were selling pigeons, and He reprimands them using the words of the Old Testament—using the words from Isaiah. So why is He doing that? Didn’t Mary ever teach him any manners? You don’t go to anyone’s house and start flipping tables over here. Something strange is going on. Well, once again, if you see something weird in the New Testament, go back to the Old Testament, and there will the answers be found.

So if you turn to page two, there at the top, let’s start with the Cleansing of the Temple. The first reason Jesus does this—this action in the temple—is not the one most people think. Most people think, well, He’s upset because they’re buying and selling...and that’s the primary meaning. And that’s true; there is a problem there. But a lot of people just assume, they must be cheating the people. They’re jacking up the prices for the sacrificial offerings, and that’s what he’s mad about. But you’ll notice, the Gospel doesn’t actually say that they were cheating anyone. It doesn’t say that He was mad about them cheating them. What is says is, that they were somehow contradicting the prophecy—Isaiah 56—that says that the house of God, the temple, is supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations.

And so scholars have pointed out here that what appears to be going on is that the ancient temple in Jesus’ day had two different parts. There was a part for the Jews, the Israelites, the outer core; and then there was a part for the Gentiles, the court of the nations. And what apparently has happened is that section that was supposed to be for the Gentiles to pray in, is what became the marketplace. In other words, we don’t care about the Gentiles having a place to pray. We’re going to be set up right here on the way into the temple, so that the pilgrims who are coming for Passover can buy their sacrifices and their lambs and their doves...and then go into the Temple and offer them in. So in a sense, what they’re doing is they’re—imagine, trying to pray when you’re surrounded by sheep and goats, right, and birds, and people exchanging money. Anyone ever tried to pray in a marketplace? It’s not easy. It’s like trying to pray at Walmart, okay. I never found anyone praying at Walmart—except Lord, please let this line go faster, right? But it’s not a place of prayer. You need quiet; you need peace to pray.

But they’ve taken away that place for the Gentiles, and that’s what makes Jesus angry. Because God’s plan from the beginning, from Abraham in Genesis 12, was that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. It was never than God chose the Jews to the exclusion of the Gentiles; it was always that He chose the Jews in order to bring the Good News to the Gentiles. But now, some of these Jews in the first century have become a barrier to the prayer of the nations. And so Jesus goes and He starts flipping tables over, and He says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’”—for all the Gentiles—“‘for all of the nations?’” 

Now, I knew that for a long time, but I never really went back and looked at the prophecy, because something more is going on. If you take that line from Isaiah and you put it in context, what you’ll discover is that Isaiah wasn’t just saying that God wanted to save the Gentile people one day. He actually was prophesying that one day, there would actually be a new temple. And in that new temple, not only would the Gentiles have a place of prayer, they would actually even be priests...which is shocking for a Jew, because there was never—I mean, even certain Jews couldn’t be priests. Only the Levites could be priests. And yet Isaiah said one day, not just Gentiles, but childless men will be able to be priests as well. Very weird.

Look at this passage with me, Isaiah’s prophecy in the new temple—childless Gentile priests. Listen to the words and I’ll unpack them for you. In Isaiah 56, it says this:

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say, [the eunuch would be a man who’s incapable of having children, a childless man]
    “Behold, I am a dry tree.” [in other words, I have no fruit]
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    which shall not be cut off.
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him [that means to minister as priests], to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants...
...these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:3-7)

Wow. It’s hard for me to give you the impact that would have had on a Jew reading through the book of Isaiah. Because in the first century AD, there were two people who couldn’t come into the temple: pagans and childless men—eunuchs, men who were incapable of having children. They were both viewed as unclean, and yet Isaiah said, one day there will be Gentile eunuchs who will act as priests in the new temple of God, and that temple would become a temple of prayer for everyone in the world. 

Why does the Church practice this discipline of celibacy for the priest? Well, it goes back to Jesus Himself. In Matthew chapter 19, He tells the disciples, “There are some who have been eunuchs from birth” (that can’t have children from being born), “there are others who have been made eunuchs by men” (they are rendered incapable of having children), but then “there are others who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 19:12. In other words, men who voluntarily embraced celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. Why? So they could fulfill this prophecy of Isaiah 56, of a new temple with new priests and a new sacrifice. And God’s saying to them, “Look, don’t say, ‘Because I’m a Gentile, I’m going to be cut off.’ Don’t say, ‘Because I don’t have any children, I’m a dry tree.’ I’m going to give you my new priests, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I’m going to give you an everlasting name that will never be cut off.” 

Anyone say, “Well, hold on, Dr. Pitre, what about that fig tree? What did it ever do to Jesus, right?” Okay, well, I tell you what: I puzzled over this one for a long time. And if you look at the commentaries on this, many scholars kind of walk away just scratching their head, saying, “We don’t know. We don’t know why Jesus would have done this to the fig tree”—especially since Mark tells you it wasn’t the season for figs. Figs don’t come out in the middle of the spring, so why is He even mad at this fig tree when it’s not yet summer time? It’s not time for figs.

Well, I think the clue lies in ancient Jewish tradition, because the fig tree was a very significant symbol. If you go back to the Old Testament, there’s one time that a fig tree gets mentioned. You know where it is? It’s the book of Genesis, in the garden of Eden. And although most Catholics, when we think about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the tree of death—we always assume it’s an apple tree, because it’s an apple tree in all of the pictures, right? Um, guess what? The pictures aren’t always right. There’s never an apple tree that gets mentioned in Genesis. The only tree that gets mentioned is a fig tree. So in ancient Jewish tradition, they actually believed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was not an apple tree, but a fig tree.

Watch, go back to—look at the next passage here. This is from Genesis chapter 3. It’s a description of the fall. It says:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 3:6-7)

That’s an old English translation. Literally, they made themselves loin clothes—that’s how the New American Bible translates it. Genesis 3, verse 6-7. Now, let me pause there for just a second. When I was growing up, my Maw Maw had a fig tree in her backyard. Maybe yours did too; it was kind of a standard Cajun thing, right? By the way, for any Yankees watching, your MawMaw is your grandmother. And let’s just say, when we climb the fig tree, sometimes you get the oil of the leaves on you, and guess what? It would give you a wicked rash. I see all of you saying, “Yep.” You know what I’m talking about. Well, think about it for a second. Is that the kind of thing you want to make a loin cloth out of? I’m thinking fig tree underwear is not a good idea...not a good idea, right? 

So Adam and Eve are doing penance from day one, okay. No sooner do they fall, they’re doing penance. Now, the Jews knew this. They read the Scriptures very carefully, so they actually had a tradition that the reason Genesis mentions the fig leaves is because that was the tree that they had just eaten of. And in fact, there’s an ancient Jewish book—it’s not in the Bible—it’s called The Life of Adam and Eve. But it’s from the first century AD. It kind of reflects the beliefs of Jesus’ time, and this is how it describes the fall of it’s Eve talking in this book that’s outside of the Bible. It’s an Ancient Jewish writing. Eve says this:

At the very moment my eyes were open, I knew that I was naked of the righteousness with which I had been clothed. I looked for leaves, so that I might cover my shame, but I did not find any from the trees of paradise, except those of the fig tree only. And I took its leaves, and I made for myself skirts. They were from the same plants of which I ate. (Life of Adam and Eve 20:1, 4-5)

Okay, so now we’ve got something here. In Jewish tradition, the fig tree was associated with the tree of death—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That when Adam and Eve eat of it, they bring death upon themselves. They commit the first sin, and then they bring suffering and death into the world for all of their poor banished children. 

And so on His way into Jerusalem for His Passion, Jesus sees the fig tree on Holy Monday. And what does He say? “May no one ever eat of you again.” Do you see it now? He curses it, because He’s not just a new Solomon. He’s not just the Messiah. He’s not just coming to set up the new temple. He’s also the new Adam. And He’s come to undo the effects of the fall, to undo the effects of the first Adam. He doesn’t want anybody to eat of the tree of death anymore. He doesn’t want anybody to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so He curses this fig tree as a symbol of what He’s going to accomplish on the cross...when he undoes sin and its power, and death and its dominion.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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