The next day, as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. From some distance away he saw a fig tree covered with leaves, and hoped to find some fruit on it; but when he came up to it he found nothing but leaves. (It wasn’t yet the season for figs.) He addressed the tree directly. ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again,’ he said. And his disciples heard. They came into Jerusalem. Jesus went into the Temple and began to drive out the traders, those who bought and sold in the Temple, and overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dove-sellers. He permitted no one to carry any vessel through the Temple. He began to teach: ‘Isn’t this what’s written,’ he said,
‘My house shall be called
a house of prayer
for all the world to share?
But you’ve made it a brigands’ den!’ The chief priests and the legal experts heard, and looked for a way to get rid of him. But they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching. When evening came, they went back out of the city. As they were returning, early in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from its roots. ‘Look, Teacher!’ said Peter to Jesus, remembering what had happened before. ‘The fig tree you cursed has withered.’ ‘Have faith in God,’ replied Jesus. ‘I’m telling you the truth: if anyone says to this mountain, “Be off with you – get yourself thrown into the sea”, if they have no doubt in their heart, but believe that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. That’s why I’m telling you, everything that you request in prayer, everything you ask God for, believe that you receive it, and it will happen for you. ‘And when you are standing there praying, if you have something against someone else, forgive them – so that your father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’
Imagine you are standing on a high hill, overlooking a long valley. In the valley are villages, a river, fields and woods, with a network of small roads winding their way between them all. Now imagine that you can see a car, driving much too fast, along one of those winding roads. The driver is obviously hell-bent on getting somewhere quicker than he should. At the same time, you see another car, coming the other way, going about its ordinary business. With horror, you see what’s going to happen. Round one of the corners, any minute now . . .
Welcome to Mark 11. Jesus has been warning his fellow Jews, up and down the country, that God’s kingdom is coming. But they, for the most part, have preferred their own aspirations, their own agendas. They have been speeding on their way, eager for national liberation of the usual revolutionary sort. Within the society, the rich have been getting richer, and the poor poorer. The self-appointed religious watchdogs have been concentrating on the outward rules and purity regulations rather than on the human heart. The Temple itself, the place where heaven and earth were supposed to meet, where God’s forgiveness was supposed to happen, has been used as a symbol of national pride. They have ignored the warning signs and are heading straight for a sharp bend . . . where, coming the other way, is Jesus.
Jesus has been announcing that this was the time for God to become king. What’s more, he had been making it happen – bringing God’s fresh rule of healing and restoration to broken lives, families, households. He has been, in person, the place where heaven and earth meet, where forgiveness and all that goes with it have happened. And now he has come to Jerusalem, on a collision course with the Temple, granted what it has become. The place won’t be big enough for both of them.
Mark, as we’ve seen elsewhere, writes the story almost like a novelist. He frames Jesus’ action in the Temple (verses 15 –18) within the double story of the fig tree. Jesus comes hoping for fruit, but finds none; so he puts a curse on the fig tree (verses 13 –14). Then, the day after the Temple incident, there is the tree: withered from its roots (verses 20 –21). The point could hardly be clearer. Jesus has come to Jerusalem, has come to the Temple, the holiest point in the Jewish world, looking for the fruit of repentance, of the wisdom, justice, holiness and peace that should be the marks of God’s people. He has found none. His action in the Temple must be seen – certainly this is how Mark and the other gospel writers see it – as an acted parable of God’s judgment. No one will eat fruit from this tree again.
That is why, by the way, all the stories that follow in the next two chapters reflect, in one way or another, the question of Jesus and the Temple. They lead the eye up to chapter 13, which is Jesus’ main, final, prophetic warning against the Temple. And this long sequence, in turn, is Mark’s deliberate build-up to the question of Jesus’ death. If you want to understand why Jesus dies on the cross, you need to think long and hard about what it means that he was what the Temple had been, the place where heaven and earth met, the place of sacrifice and forgiveness.
At the heart of Jesus’ charge against the Temple is the little verse from Isaiah 56.7. God’s house was supposed, in the long run, to be a place of prayer for all the world. All the nations were supposed to look to Jerusalem and see it as a beacon of hope, of the presence of the creator God. Instead, anyone looking would see only a market-place, and worse: a den of brigands (an allusion to Jeremiah 7.11). ‘Brigands’ are more than ‘robbers’ (one of the traditional translations). ‘Brigands’ were, in Jesus’ day, the holy revolutionaries, the terrorists, eager to overthrow pagan rule by violence. The Temple itself has come to symbolize that deep distortion of God’s kingdom. The only word that can now be spoken to it is a word of judgment.
The disciples, watching in amazement, learn another lesson as well. They will be faced with ‘this mountain’ – the mountain where the Temple sits, ruled over by the hard-hearted chief priests – in the days to come. They will need to have faith that God will overthrow the system and all that it represents. The lesson goes wider, in line with Jesus’ repeated teaching about prayer and faith. Ask; believe; and it will happen. But remember: while asking, forgive (verse 25). The door that opens to let forgiveness out of your heart towards someone else is the door through which God’s forgiveness will enter.
As you look at today’s world, where are the cars that are speeding much too fast towards the dangerous bends? Where are Jesus’ warnings most badly needed in our world?
Almighty Father, God of judgment and mercy, overthrow the systems that abuse their calling and oppress your people, and set up your rule of grace and peace.