Last time we were in Italy walking in the foot hills of the Amalfi coast, I picked some figs and ate them as we walked. Delicious! On previous visits to the old family farm in Tuscany, the fig tree often disappointed as we used to go before the fig season had started. I was told not to expect any figs, even though there were plenty of leaves!
So this first part of the story is a little strange, Jesus should have known there are no figs to be picked out of season, yet he looks anyway. Finding none, he curses the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Is Jesus being grumpy? Or is something else going on here? Jeremiah (in Jeremiah 24) had a picture of two baskets of figs in front of the Temple during the time of the exile. One basket was good – made up of exiles who would eventually return and be given a new heart as God’s people. The other basket was bad figs, rotten and only to be thrown away. As Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to clear the temple. the incident with the fruit tree is Jesus announcing the state of Israel.
Hundreds of years before Jesus clears the Temple, a pagan king Antiochus IV had put a statue of Zeus in the old Temple and sacrificed a pig on the altar. That rightly sparked a Jewish revolt. The victorious Maccabaeus returned triumphant to the Temple to cleared out pagan Gentiles and re-dedicated to Israel. So it would have been a surprise that when Jesus entered the Temple he cleared out Jews from the court of the Gentiles.
The large outer area of the Temple complex was the court of the Gentiles – a place where Gentiles could come and see and find out what it meant to worship God. Instead now it is still cleared of Gentiles, but filled with money changers changing pagan coins to Jewish ones and selling sacrifices at inflated prices. It is no longer a house of prayer and a place where the nations could com and find out about God. It has become a den of robbers. Here Jesus is quoting Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11.
By clearing the temple of people profiting from sacrifices, Jesus has cut off a huge source of income for priests and Pharisees and they are none to please – wanting to kill him. For now the people are amazed by Jesus’ teaching. Over the course of the next days the penny drops that the Messiah is not coming like the warrior Maccabaeus. He is coming t call people to repentance, and the nations to turn to God, so they will join the shouts of “Crucify Him!”