Jesus entered Jerusalem in the last week of his life peacefully but sadly. He wept as he approached the city, mourning what he knew would soon happen. (Luke 19:41-46) His next steps were marked by his criticism of the religious leadership. He drove out bankers and merchants from around the temple and told off the angry priests and scribes there. (Matt 21:12-17) He also stopped on his way to make an example of a fig tree. We’ll get back to that shortly.
You would think by all the noise and fuss they make that the most religious among us are the ones Jesus would have us emulate. You know them. They pray ceremonially in public often. They talk about their authority and how important it is to keep organizational rules. They elevate their received cultural traditions to the status of religious observance. They insist that certain eating habits, certain grooming practices, and wearing nice clothes are signs of reverence and piety. They use their influence to make economic connections, especially as it relates to space around temples.
The pharisees were known as being arch rule keepers. The word pharisee even means “a separated purist”. Not surprisingly, they were constantly on Jesus’s case for breaking rules. One of the best examples is when they tried to kill him for saying that it was OK to work on their Sabbath because God does. (John 5:17) They also got on his case for drinking wine, trusting women, and associating with cultural outsiders, among other things. In response, Jesus said back to them “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (Matt 15:3)
As Jesus taught in the temple that day, the elders and high priests challenged his authority. (Matt 21:23) Who does this guy think he is? A drunk with no respect for the general authorities or keeping the Sabbath day holy? Jesus answered with two parables about hypocrisy and trusted authorities who fail to bring forth fruit from their master’s vineyard. (Matt 21:28-31, 33-43) The word hypocrite in Greek comes from the words hypo (under, underneath) and krino (to make a judgment). It is the ancient Greek word for stage actor, since they proclaim from under a mask.
So, back to the fig tree. Matthew 21: 18-19:
18 Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered.
19 And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away.
Why would Jesus stop on the road and curse a fig tree on his way back into town? He didn’t need figs from this tree any more than he needed water from the woman at the well in Samaria. Jesus hungers for the fruit of a pure heart and thirsts for the water of love for the truth. The tree represents the hypocrisy of religious leaders who “put forth their leaves” but bring forth no fruit. They proudly hold titles of religious leadership, but use them only for honors from men. They have lost their authority. (D&C 121:34-37) They are counterfeit. They are salt with no savor, and henceforth good for nothing. (Matt 5:13)