The Scary Part
In the first post (Part 1) in this little mini-series, I walked through the first 16 verses of Matthew 21 to show how the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem and cleansing the Temple was all about how much Jesus hates it when insiders keep outsiders out.
In the second post (Part 2), I tried to make some practical applications by drawing attention to some of the ways we Christians live like insiders and keep outsiders out and also by encouraging us all to ask three introspective questions regarding these issues.
In this post, I come to the scary part of the passage in Matthew 21.
In many of the Old Testament passages that Jesus quotes or Matthew refers to, there is something scary hidden. In Zechariah 9:8-10, there is the idea of God opposing the oppressors. In Jeremiah 7:9-11, God is calling out evil Jews. In Psalm 8, the praises of the children serve to silence the enemies of God. Then, of course, there is Jesus obviously kicking Jewish people out of the Temple. Putting all these things together, you get the idea that for Jesus, the “oppressors” were Jews in the Temple, and the “my people” were the foreigners / Gentiles who were supposed to be worshipping there!
The scary part is that Jesus kicked the insiders out so he could make room for the outsiders to come in.
It’s scary for insiders at least.
However, that’s not the really scary part of the story. The really scary part comes in the next section of the narrative, and in fact, there isn’t just one scary thing, there are three.
Scary Part #1
And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night. — Matthew 21:17 NIV
The first scary thing is that Jesus, the Messiah King who just entered Jerusalem, left it that same night. Now, there are all kinds of practical reasons why Jesus might have left the city. It was the time of the Passover, so the city was probably full, he was being hunted by the Pharisees, so there’s that, but I find it to be something scary. Picture it, the Messiah has just entered the great city, ransacked the Temple, and then left again. That doesn’t seem right. It seems like either Jesus only showed up to issue an attack or that he showed up, got upset and then left right away. Either way, that would me feel like maybe he isn’t the King I expected. Maybe he is thinking about judgment on Jerusalem more than victory for Jerusalem.
Apply it to us today: are we prepared for the possibility that Jesus might show up in our midst, be unsatisfied with what he finds and then leave again? That’s a scary thought.
Scary Part #2
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. — Matthew 21:18-19 NIV
Since this was the springtime, everyone knows that this tree wouldn’t have nice, edible figs on it. Mark even tells us in his gospel that it wasn’t the season for figs. However, fig trees have an interesting property in that they grow gendered fruit. First, small male figs appear on the tree and then the female flowers will get fertilized by the male figs and develop into the figs that are generally harvested and eaten. Another interesting thing about fig trees is that the small male figs, although less pleasant than the female figs, are nonetheless edible. A third interesting thing about fig trees is that the small male figs appear on the tree when the leaves do. It wasn’t the season for figs, but lo and behold, this tree Jesus saw had leaves on it, and since it had leaves, it should also have some small male figs on it.
But it didn’t have any fruit at all. Only leaves.
In other words, this fig tree had all the external markings of having something to snack on but no actual fruit.
You might call this fig tree a hypocrite.
Was Jesus mad at the fig tree? Maybe. Was Jesus continuing a point he started to make the previous day? Most definitely.
The scary part of this story is that Jesus has the power to make a fig tree wither to nothing with the word of his mouth simply because it had the external showing of fruitfulness with no actual fruit to show for it.
What might Jesus do with a bunch of people who have all the outward markings of religious fervor but have none of the appropriate fruit to go along with it?
The scary part of this story is that Jesus might turn his judgment from the fig tree and toward the hypocrisy of the religious insiders who revel in their religiosity while keeping the outsiders out.
Scary Part #3
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” — Matthew 21:20-22 NIV
I could spend a lot of time talking about the meaning of this passage and what it means to pray in an attitude of faith, but I think the best way to understand this passage is to simply put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples and walk along with him as we share this encounter.
You see, after spending the night in Bethany, Jesus and his disciples were walking back to the city (v. 18). On that journey, they would have had the Mount of Olives roughly at their back and the city of Jerusalem in front of them. Furthermore, the city of Jerusalem was built on a relatively high point in the surrounding area with the highest point being where the Temple stood. Walking toward Jerusalem, the city seems to be set on a hill, and the Temple was frequently talked about as being on a “mountain.” Remember Isaiah 56 talked about God bringing the foreigners to his “holy mountain” so they could find joy in his “house of prayer.”
In other words, Jesus is saying to his followers, “You see the judgment I just issued on this hypocritical fig tree? Well, I’ll tell you a secret. If you believe what I’m about to tell you, you could say to this mountain, ‘Get out of here, we don’t need you anymore!’ and it will happen.”
The meaning of that sentence hinges on whether Jesus is talking about any mountain, or if his use of the word “this” was intentional.
Considering they were walking toward the most famous mountain in all of Israel, and considering they were standing in sight of two different mountains, and considering the context of judgment against the fig tree, AND considering what happened the day before at the Temple, it makes sense to me that Jesus was saying, “God is done with this mountain.” Or to be more clear, “God is done with the Temple.” It might as well be tossed into the sea. Finally, Jesus at other times directly predicted the destruction of the Temple which ended up happening in 70 AD.
The scary part is that the “holy mountain” the “house of prayer” the Temple itself could be tossed aside because it hadn’t been fruitful in the way God wanted it to be, because it had become a place for the insiders to do their insider things and had failed to be a place where the outsiders were welcomed in.
Put all three little parts together, and the scary statement becomes clear:
When God’s people fail to welcome the outsiders, He is not afraid to discard them and find new people.
This happens to churches all the time. Churches that fail to produce fruit wither and die. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter what the church looks or feels like. The Temple was a bustle of activity. The fig tree had leaves all over it. A church can look vibrant and exciting and full of activity, but that’s not the point. The point is fruitfulness. The point is whether the outsiders are being welcomed in.
If the church is just an insider club for more insiders, then Jesus just might spend the night somewhere else.
If the church is just a place for the insiders to do insider things, then Jesus just might issue a withering judgment.
If the church is a place where outsiders aren’t welcomed into the family, it just might get tossed into the sea.
But we will be different.
We will keep moving forward as a church that does the introspection first.
We will keep moving forward as a church that serves others before ourselves.
We will keep moving forward as a church that invites the outsiders to enter the family.
We will be a church to bring the outsiders in.