In our last study, we saw Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem, praised and celebrated by huge crowds who sang “Hosanna to the son of David!” In spite of this welcome, Jesus wept for the city. He was not the sort of Savior the inhabitants wanted. The majority of them, and especially their leaders, would eventually reject him, crucify him and persecute his followers.
The day after his triumphal entry, Jesus had—for the second time—cast out those who had set themselves up in the court of the temple to sell animals and change foreign currency. Indeed, three years earlier, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had cast them out in the same way. The vendors and moneychangers not only changed a place of prayer into a noisy market, but more than that, on a large scale they swindled worshippers of God by making them pay exorbitant prices for the animals they needed to sacrifice.
Next, Jesus stood in the temple court and taught the crowds. He talked to them about the necessity of forgiving others, about offerings that please God and about the Good News, or Injeel. But he also announced in many ways that the Jews and their leaders were at risk of losing the privileged standing with God that they had enjoyed.
The cursed fig tree
The first warning actually took place before Jesus cleansed the temple, when he was going to Jerusalem from the neighboring village of Bethany where he was spending his nights. Listen to a passage which has often confused readers:
“Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, ‘Let no one eat fruit from you ever again.’ And His disciples heard it… When evening had come, He went out of the city. Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.” (Mark 11:12-14,19,20)
One has the impression that Jesus was strangely hard and unreasonable concerning the fig tree. Why would he expect to find figs, if, as Mark said, it was not the season for figs? To understand, a detail is needed about the fig tree: it blooms and its fruits begin developing before its leaves appear. So a tree that already has foliage should theoretically already produce something. It is as if, by its appearance, the tree is saying, “I have fruit—come and eat.” But when you look at it up close, you find nothing there.
This tree resembled the nation of Israel, which proclaimed loud and clear its righteousness and devotion to God. From a distance, we would say this was a godly people who practiced with zeal a religion that was superior to the religions of other nations. But when Jesus came near, he found all sorts of sin and hypocrisy. In cursing the barren fig tree, Jesus announced in dramatic fashion what was reserved for the nation that did not recognize its own sin but boasted of a righteousness that it did not possess.
The parable of the two sons
In view of all that Jesus did and said, the people in charge approached to question him about the origin of his mission. Jesus promised to answer them if they would tell him whether the baptism of John was of God or of men. They said to one another:
“If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet. So they answered Jesus and said, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (Matthew 21:23-27)
The Jewish leaders thus recognized in a way, though unintentionally, that they were not competent to judge if his ministry came from God or men. Because here they are, the men whose role was to supervise all religious teaching, incapable of making a determination about a person as important as John the Baptist.
The story continues in verses 28-32, where Jesus says:
“‘But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go, work today in my vineyard.” He answered and said, “I will not,” but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, “I go, sir,” but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said to Him, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.’”
The parable of the two sons is very simple: a father with two sons says to the first to go work in the field. The first one says that he doesn’t want to, but afterward he changes his mind and he goes. When the father tells the second son to do the same thing, this one says that he will, but he doesn’t go. The Jewish leaders had refused to answer the question: “From where did the baptism of John come, from heaven or from men?” Smelling a trap, they had reasoned among themselves, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’” So they refused to answer. However, they did answer the question: “Which of the two sons did the will of the father in the story?”, not suspecting that in reality the two questions dealt with the same thing, namely, their own rebellion against God. By their answer, they condemned themselves.
In rejecting the ministry of John the Baptist, the leaders resembled the son who had disobeyed the will of his father, because it was certainly God who had sent John the Baptist. They had accused him of having a demon. They refused to repent. And, according to Luke 7:30, in refusing to be baptized by him, they had rejected the plan of God for themselves. They said to God, “Yes, father.” They claimed to do the will of God. But through their actions, they were rebellious sons. Because of this, Jesus said that repentant sinners would precede them into God’s kingdom. The word “precede” in this case does not mean that they would enter before the Pharisees and the scribes, but that they would actually take their place in the kingdom.
The parable of the vinedressers
Jesus continued with another parable. This one concerns a property owner who planted a vineyard. He put everything in place, and then he rented the vineyard out to vinedressers and traveled abroad. When the time came to harvest the grapes, he sent a servant to the vinedressers to receive from them his part of the harvest. But the vinedressers beat the servant and sent him back empty-handed. He sent other servants, but the workers treated them in the same way. They beat some and they killed others. Finally the owner sent his own son, telling himself that the workers would at least show respect to him. But the vinedressers said to one another, “Here is the one who will become the owner. Come, let’s kill him, and the vineyard will be ours.” So they seized the son, killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. The passage ends like this:
“‘Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?’ They said to Him, ‘He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes”? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.’ Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.” (Matthew 21:40-46)
The Jewish leaders had no trouble understanding the meaning of this parable. Israel and its leaders had not lived according to the righteousness demanded by God. More than that, they had mistreated the prophets of God who had been sent to call them to repentance. He had now sent Jesus, but he also would be mistreated and put to death by these leaders. Consequently, they would be punished and the kingdom of God would be taken away from them. It would be given to others.
Israel is no longer the chosen people of God
Jesus had predicted before his death that the Jewish nation would lose the special status with God that it had enjoyed. This prophecy was fulfilled about 40 years later when the Roman army destroyed the city of Jerusalem with its temple and removed all the Jewish leaders from their positions of authority. The Jews who believed in Jesus still retained their place in the kingdom but not because they were Jews. As Galatians 3:28,29 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Contrary to what many seem to believe, the state of Israel today does not have any more importance in the eyes of God than any other state. The people of God in our day is the church. The church is spiritual Israel.
In Romans 11, the apostle Paul speaks of the rejection of Israel. The people had not been rejected altogether, because there were some Jews, like Paul himself, who believed in Jesus. The rejection of the Jewish people was not without remedy, because a Jew, even today, is free to obey the Gospel and enter into the kingdom of God. But the majority of Jews had been excluded because they did not believe in Christ. Paul draws a comparison to an olive tree. Certain branches of the tree (disbelieving Jews) have been cut off because of their unbelief. They are no longer part of the chosen people of God. They have been rejected. Wild olive branches (believing pagans) were grafted in their place because of their faith. But if the natural branches of the olive tree could be cut off, certainly the wild branches could be cut off as well. Their salvation was not unconditional but depended on their faithfulness.
In cursing the fig tree and telling the parables of the two sons and the vinedressers, Jesus was putting the Jews on guard. A terrible fate awaited them for their lack of repentance and lack of faith in him. The Jews, who believed themselves to be already righteous but were in fact not pleasing to God, must serve as an example to us who believe in Jesus today. We must not simply say, “Yes, Father.” We must obey Him. It is necessary to believe, but after that it is necessary to remain faithful. Otherwise, like the Jews who did not believe, we will lose our place in the kingdom of heaven.