I grew cucumbers this summer. I bought three small plants and planted them in my raised bed. Then I waited. And watered. And waited some more. They grew big and full and filled the cages around them. Lots of healthy, green leaves, but no cucumbers. I began to wonder if there was ever going to be cucumbers.
I now understand Jesus’ frustration with the fig tree in Matthew 21.
Showy fruitlessness. (Dale Bruner’s phrase)
Jesus was hungry and found no figs on the fig tree — only leaves. He doesn’t curse it because it has no fruit. He curses it because it looks like it should have fruit, and it doesn’t. Showy fruitlessness.
In Matthew 21:28-32, a man had two sons and he asked the first one to go and work in the vineyard. And the son answered, “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind and went. The man went to the other son and asked him to go and work in the vineyard. This one answered, “Sure I’ll go,” but he did not go. Jesus asks the crowd, “Which of the two did the will of the father?”
This parable stumps me. Both sons seemed to err — one in his disrespectful response; the other in his disobedient action.
The crowd answers that the first son was the one who did the will of the father. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, that’s right.” Instead He says, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Matthew 21:31-32
So, what’s the answer? Who’s right? Wouldn’t the son who said, “yes” be the one who did his father’s will even though he never did get around to working in the vineyard? And wouldn’t we consider the son who said, “No, I won’t go,” to be the naughty one, disrespectful and disobedient to his father?
And it has something to do with the fig tree and its showy fruitlessness.
Jesus is targeting the chief priests and elders of the people who say they are righteous and holy, but have nothing to show for it. They honor God with their lips but their hearts are far from Him. Hypocrites, says Jesus. (15:8,9) You say one thing and do another. Just like the son who said he would go into the vineyard to work, but did not.
The one who did the will of the father? The son who initially said, “No” but changed his mind. The one who said he wouldn’t go, but then did.
Like this son, Jesus commends the tax collectors and the prostitutes who heard the words of John and believed him. They too changed their minds, left their sinful ways and followed Jesus. The kingdom of God will be open to any who believe the words of salvation and follow after Jesus, even if they’ve said no before.
However, it will be closed to those who say they believe, but do not do the Father’s will.
This is showy fruitlessness. Lots of leaves, but no fruit. (21:19) Lots of words, but no actions. Lots of yes’s, but hearts far from God.
Will a fruitless life be cursed like Jesus cursed the fruitless fig tree? Will all show and no obedience end in condemnation?
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit.”
The chapter ends with the chief priests and the Pharisees finally figuring out that Jesus was speaking about them. And unless they change their minds, bring their hearts into alignment with their lips, and begin bearing fruit, it wasn’t going to end well for them.
Debbie Williamson was born and raised in Southern California, got my bachelor’s degree from UCLA, and married a man who wanted to be a pastor. He finished his master’s degree, and we moved to Illinois. After nine years in Oak Park, IL, we moved to Yakima, WA. Four years later, we were back in Southern California.
We have been married for thirty years and have 3 daughters and 2 incredible sons-in-law. Two dogs fill up our empty nest. We live in Temecula, CA and do life with people at Faith Community Church.
I write, teach bible studies, speak at retreats and women’s events, and mentor young women. I’m also a middle school substitute teacher.In my free time, I enjoy reading, gardening, watching sports, walking, meeting with friends over coffee, and working on the newest Pinterest project.