by Daniel Harrell
The last thing anyone needs in church on a Sunday devoted to happy hosanna singing is a grumpy Jesus. What’s the matter anyway? It’s starts off well—he makes his grand entrance into Jerusalem, riding in all Messiah-like—although a stallion would probably have been preferable to a sequestered colt. He waves to the adoring crowds who throw off their coats and wave their palm-palms. It’s all good until for no good reason Jesus lets a helpless fig tree have it, followed by a withering tantrum in the Temple where he impetuously overturns tables and the chairs of those who work there. And don’t get me started about his promises about prayer. “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” he says. “Tell this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” Are you kidding me? Whatever you ask just believe and you’ll get it? We call this the “name it and claim it” way to pray. I don’t think Dawn covered it in her prayer class. It doesn’t work out so well in real life.
As we saw last Sunday, Jesus had grown immensely popular by this point in Mark’s gospel—so much so that the religious authorities wanted him dead. They wanted him dead for acting like God Almighty and for threatening their domination of the religion market. But they had to find a stealthy way to get rid him so as not to incite a mass riot. For the most part, Jesus resisted his fans’ clamor for him to let them treat him like a king. But it seems he finally gave in. Of course these same fans who waved palms start throwing stones once their king goes kong in the Temple courts. Wrecking the Temple was like spray-painting graffiti on the Sistine Chapel. Why would a good guy like Jesus do that? Unless he’s not really a good guy. By Friday all those Hosannas will give way to a call for blood.
Normally we interpret Jesus’ Temple tirade as an indictment against the commercialization of faith and the love of money as the root of all evil. But if you’ll remember from a couple of weeks back, buying and selling were actually necessary parts of proper Temple business. The Jerusalem Temple was where animal sacrifices happened, over and over, hundreds of times a day for all kinds of purposes, from atoning for sin to expressing deep gratitude. The Temple system was how you managed a right relationship with the holy God. And it had to be done right. In accordance with Torah, a right relationship with God cost you the best of your herds, flocks and crops—flawless livestock with no spot or blemish. However getting a bull or goat all the way to Jerusalem without dinging it up was a hard thing to do in those days. Therefore as a service to the faithful, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or goat at the door. You’d bring your cash, change it into Temple currency, buy your sacrificial lamb and present it to the priest. It was all very kosher. So what was Jesus’ problem with it?
To understand, Mark employs a literary device we saw him use last Sunday: the Mark Sandwich. Throughout his gospel, Mark sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another so to amplify the meaning of each. In this chapter, Jesus’ Temple clearing is sandwiched by two slices of fig tree cursing. Top Slice: a hungry Jesus looking for some breakfast. Finding a fig tree in leaf, he also found that it had no fruit—sort of like getting to Dunn Brothers only to find that they’ve run out of coffee. Understandably, Jesus got irritated. Humans do that when they’re hungry. Except that Jesus was no mere mortal. He could pray a mountain into the sea, so why not pray a few Newtons to pop out on a fig branch? He comes off as petty and petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. To make matters worse, Mark notes that it wasn’t even fig season. Jesus was clearly barking at the wrong tree—like yelling at your refrigerator when you forgot to buy the milk. Except that what Jesus did was not about the tree but about what the tree represented. That’s right, the fig tree is fig-urative. Jesus provides a parable here, only this time he acts it out for the disciples to see (since they never could understand the parables he simply told).
Throughout the Bible, God’s people are compared to fruit trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce a crop that accords with their godly nature. Yet God’s people resisted their nature, treating grace as permission to do as they pleased. The prophet Jeremiah had stood in the same Temple courts centuries prior to convey the Lord’s displeasure. “You have no shame,” he howled, “you do not even know how to blush. When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no grapes on your vine, nor figs on your fig tree; even your leaves are withered…” Their sin ran deep. They cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied and chased after shiny idols on weekends instead of worshipping God. But the topper was the way they used the Temple system to cover their backside; they’d sin and sacrifice and sin and sacrifice, only to go out and sin some more. Jeremiah yelled, “Will you steal and murder and cheat and lie and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”
Jesus yells out this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you get how it was that people treated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so furious. By turning the tables he jammed the Temple trafficking and effectively brought a halt to the whole sacrificial charade. By blocking their access to God he threw a wrench into the whole relationship. Also citing Isaiah, Jesus cried out how the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all the nations.” The idea from day it opened its doors was that outsiders would always be welcome inside. The Lord is the Lord of all nations. God chose Israel, but as an example of his grace, not as sole beneficiaries. It all went to their heads, so that by the time we get to Jeremiah, the Temple had become some exclusive country club. Rather than putting out the welcome mat for their unbelieving neighbors, God’s people treated the Temple as a sanctuary from their unbelieving neighbors. Refusing to let his house to be so mistreated, God let it be leveled by the very pagan neighbors his people tried to keep out. And though the Temple was eventually rebuilt, the behavior never changed. Which was why Jesus pulled a Jeremiah.
Inasmuch as Israel’s story is our story too, we should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we treat church as a safe-haven to protect us from the secular world. We should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we take our relationship with God for granted, whenever we treat grace as insurance against our own bad behavior and bad choices. Grace is a free gift and there’s nothing you can do to earn it, but you still must do something to show you’ve received it. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth. “You can tell a tree by its fruit…” Jesus said, “and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Bottom Slice: Jesus and his disciples came upon that fig-less tree again, and Peter said, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed is toast.” It tasted a lot like Jeremiah too. “While you were doing your sinful deeds,” declared the Lord through the prophet, “I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen. I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore I will now do to the house that bears my Name, to this temple you trust in, to this place I gave to you and your ancestors, I will [destroy it and] thrust you from my presence.” The fig-less tree was cut down before. It would be cut down again. This is the moral of the parable—except that Jesus’ response to Peter seems oddly off track. “Have faith in God,” he replies, “and you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea’ and it will be done for him.” In other words, shriveling a fig tree is nothing. Believe without doubting and you can transform the entire horizon.
OK, so maybe moving mountains is a bit of hyperbole. But I bet none of you can even muster enough faith to wither a houseplant unless you stop watering it too. This is the problem with prayer. It doesn’t really work the way Jesus says it does. Who ever gets whatever they ask for every time? Mountains remain where they’ve always been, diseases go uncured, marriages unrepaired, kids unruly and jobs unavailable. Nobody has enough faith. But even if we did have the faith to move mountains, that’s no guarantee that they’d go anywhere. The strong link between prayer and faith is not the link we think. Jesus is not talking about the amount of faith here, but the direction in which it’s pointed. Have faith in God, Jesus said, and you’ll get whatever you ask in prayer because of the way you will pray. Prayers pointed at God sound like the prayer prayed by Jesus: “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” as impossible as that can be sometimes to pray. Prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is getting you to do what God wants.
But why this digression on prayer anyway? Because Jesus was standing in what was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations. But now that it had been reduced to a robbers’ den, God would leave it to suffer the apocalyptic ruin Jesus portended in chapter 13: not one stone would be left upon another. Note that Jesus did not say faith in God can move any mountain, but specifically this mountain, which for the disciples hearing Jesus say it in the shadow of the withered fig tree would have been the Temple mountain. Jesus was still on his jeremiad. “If you tell this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” Because it’s going to happen anyway. About 40 years after Jesus said it, Rome would level the Temple as flat as the Babylonians leveled it some 600 years prior. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Taking for granted that the disciples were able to put tree and Temple together (which I know may be a reach given Mark’s portrayal of the disciples), I doubt their takeaway was that they too could wilt plants and move mountains, but I bet they did think they could turn the tables on their own enemies. It’s no secret that the religious authorities were gunning for Jesus’ followers too. Why take out a tree when you can take down a Pharisee, obliterate your obnoxious neighbor, your conniving ex-wife or the boss who just laid you off? Knowing how human hurt craves such vengeance, and concerned perhaps that his own volatile actions would be perceived as condoning vigilante violence, Jesus quickly added a caveat: “Whenever you pray, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”
For a guy in such a bad mood, this was a remarkable concession. He angrily kills a tree to forebode the end of relationship between God and sinners, then prays to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and extend grace? It sounds so strange until you remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. Both were the dwelling places for God. And both would be destroyed. The curse Jesus hung on the tree and the Temple was finally the curse he hung upon himself. The end Jesus forebodes he fulfills. As Isaiah foretold, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” God wants grace for us so much that it kills him. Jesus became for us the perfect sacrifice for all time and for all people—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.