We start here with a compare and contrast of the episode of the cursing of the fig tree of Matthew’s gospel at the backdrop of Mark’s gospel which I think may be helpful to understand this episode better.
Unlike the gospel of Mark, Matthew has placed the cleansing of the Temple on the same day of Jesus’ Triumphal entry in the city of Jerusalem. So too he places the cursing of the fig tree and the discovering of it as have been withered on the same day. However it could be inferred that in Matthew’s Markan source these happens over a period of two days. In fact in Matthew’s gospel the withering of the fig tree takes place “at once” (Mt 21, 19). In Mark’s gospel the fig tree episode is integrated into the Temple episode in the form of a “sandwich” narrative (refer my older posts in ‘Gospel of Mark – Exegesis’). It thus provides an interpretation of Jesus’ action in the Temple. It is good to point out that Matthew omits Mark’s difficult statement, “it was not the season for figs” (cf. Mk 11, 13). In Mark this statement does alert the reader to look for the symbolic rather than the literal meaning of the event. Even the surprised reporting of the withered fig tree is done by the disciples and not just Peter alone (as in the case of Mark’s narrative). Therefore the readers may ask: Is this an actual incident or a parable? The answer may be inferred from the gospel of Luke 13, 6-9, were we have similar event told in the form of a parable by Jesus. Further as in the gospel of Mark, the narration of the fig tree episode provides an occasion for a lesson in prayer by the narrator. And the word “curse” is not found either in Mark or in Matthew. In this episode of the cursing of the fig tree, it is most unlikely that Jesus who refused to work a miracle to satisfy his hunger (at the insistence of the Tempter) in Matthew 4, 2-4 would have done it on this occasion. Besides, we are not told that Jesus was angry at the fig tree or not.
Now coming back to the gospel of Matthew proper, we should understand for Matthew the word “fruits” always stand for ‘good deeds’ (cf. Mt 7, 16-20). Therefore, this episode is symbolic prophetic action in the tradition of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel who have shown God’s judgment to the people of Israel by means of shocking symbolic actions.
Some of the leading groups within Judaism appeared like a fig tree with plenty of leaves but having no fruits. A fig tree, like the vineyard, is a symbol for Israel. Therefore, Jesus’ symbolic action is directed against the kind of religion characterized by the Temple worship without fruits, a religion consisting mainly in externals. It is to be noted that the scene is not a scene of punishment but a prophetic judgment meant to challenge and invite the people to change their life (unlike the message in Mark’s narrative of the cursing of the fig tree). Besides, the symbolic action may refer only to the leaders of the people of Israel.
It is meant to be a warning also for the Christian disciples during Matthew’s time of writing this gospel, who too might be like the fig tree (trees) without fruits. Further the fig tree episode has links with the parables to follow soon in Matthew’s 21st and 22nd chapters.