SynopsisIn this passage Jesus passes by a fig tree, and, being hungry, looks for figs on it, but there is nothing on the tree but leaves. So he curses the tree, saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” (verse 19 (ESV)).
The tree immediately withers, and the disciples marvel at it, wondering how it withered so quickly. Jesus’ answer to them is another very familiar passage to most of us:
And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (verses 21–22 (ESV))
ThoughtsMatthew’s stories are sometimes a bit condensed; other accounts of this story in the Gospels have Jesus and the disciples finding the tree withered the next day, whereas the account in Matthew makes it sound like the withering happens instantly. It doesn’t mean that Matthew’s account is inaccurate; the point is that the tree withered in an unnaturally short period of time, which amazed the disciples. Matthew’s focus is simply on other things, rather than focusing in on the details of how quickly it happened. (A tree withering in one day is “at once.”)
By this point in his ministry Jesus has performed a lot of miracles, so it’s interesting that the disciples “marvel” at this one, where he simply causes a fig tree to wither. I wonder if it’s because this is a curse—something Jesus didn’t do often—and we humans like to see shows of power. Jesus has miraculously healed and fed people, and demonstrated his authority even over demons, but in this instance when he curses something and the curse takes place, it hits home in a unique way because of the way we sometimes view things. I also think of Luke 9:51–56 (ESV), when the Jesus and the disciples face opposition and James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to “tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them”—which, of course, he doesn’t, and you can almost feel the disappointment of James and John.
At the end of this passage Jesus again talks to his disciples about faith, and tells them that whatever they ask in prayer they will receive, if they have faith. That caveat is pretty important. I do not see this passage as promising that we can have anything we desire if we just pray for it—or if we just pray hard enough for it, or if we just believe hard enough that God will do it. “Faith” is not just believing something with all your might. In the Biblical context, faith is inextricably bound up with who God is, and trusting in Him. This verse doesn’t make God into a genie, that will grant us wishes as long as we believe hard enough. It does tell us, however, that if our “faith” is correctly focused we can never go wrong; if I want what God wants, how could I possibly not be satisfied? It’s interesting to also contrast this with 17:14–20.