What is Fig Monday?

Immediately following his entry into Jerusalem, we are told the stories, back to back, of the cleansing of the temple and the withering of the fig tree that gives Fig Monday its name. Although it seems harsh and uncharacteristic for Jesus to curse and wither a poor tree that did not have fruit to bear (especially as it was not the season for it), the two stories side by side give us the full meaning and message.

The fig tree and the cleansing of the temple are positioned together because the author sees them as connected, and it’s in that context they are to be understood. The fig tree was a symbol of Israel to the Old Testament prophets (Hos. 9:10Jer. 24:1-10, and Joel 1:7), so here both temple and tree now stand together as symbols of Israel’s withered state. Just as the tree Jesus sees from a distance has the look and promise of sustaining physical life, on close inspection it is without fruit, barren. In the same way, the temple system with its outward look and promise of sustaining spiritual life is also barren, having become just another busy marketplace.


Why Curse a Tree?

Jesus “cursing” the tree is simply his unmasking of its true withered state–just as he does when he cleanses the temple. If something is not able to fulfill its intended purpose, in Aramaic it is called “bisha.” Bisha is the word we translate as “evil,” but literally it can simply mean “unripe,” immature, unable to preserve life. Israel has become bisha in its religious systems and political culture. Jesus is unmasking the people and institutions in his time, and in ours, that deceive us into thinking they will sustain our spiritual lives, when they cannot.

Religion and spirituality are two very different things. When the religious institutions in our lives are bearing fruit, they are “taba,” ripe, good, able to sustain us and bring us into the direct experience of God’s presence. When they are not, when there is no fruit on the branches, no matter how devoted we may be to them, they starve us and keep us from the life we seek. Just as Palm Sunday showed us we need to look past our own fears and compulsions in order to see Jesus as he truly is, Fig Monday teaches that we need to see past the deceptions and limitations of the institutions in our lives, the ritual practice and belief systems to which we continue to cling that can no longer sustain and keep us from the fullness of the life God offers.

Cleansing of the temple.
Matt 21:12-16Mark 11:15-18Luke 19:45-48

The withering of the fig tree.
Matt 21:18-19Mark 11:12-14

We hope these readings and short comments help prepare you this week for Resurrection Day next Sunday. If you’d like to dig even further, here is a daily devotional for Holy Week with some really nice elements.

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