12Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
14The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 17He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
18In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
By the end of the Gospel of Matthew the events are speeding up. Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers; he cures the sick in the temple; he argues with the priests and scribes (again); and he curses a fig tree. It seems like a strange place to end. Why does Jesus curse the tree? Ostensibly the story is about prayer: “if you ask for this in faith it will be done.” But I can’t help but think that Jesus is still thinking about the temple, even when he has gone out to Bethany. The temple was full of people making money, selling animals for sacrifice, teaching toothless theology. It was close enough to the blind and the lame that they made it to Jesus for healing there; but why didn’t the faith of Israel offer that healing in the first place? If the temple was where the people were to meet God, why wasn’t God there? It was like a dried-up fig tree, and the people went hungry. We always run this temptation in our lives—thinking that if we keep the sacrificial economy of work or parenthood or volunteering going we can make space for God. We do this at church, too, when we fill the calendar with commitments that you sometimes want to attend and sometimes feel like you have to attend. But are we really fed when this happens? I sometimes wonder—especially now that our sacrificial economy has been upended by events beyond our control. Maybe now is the time to recover something of the presence of Jesus, which is always what we need. If we don’t know how, Jesus offers a way.
God, be present to us, as you were to your disciples, in the love of Jesus Christ, your Son. Help us in our lives and in our church to bear the fruits of faith for a hungry world, as we enjoy your presence in all that we do. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.