Over the next few weeks, during this Christian season of Lent, which started last Wednesday (Ash Wednesday) and running through Easter/Resurrection Sunday, we’ll be exploring Jesus last week on earth, in our series The Last Week. We’ll exploring Jesus last week through the lens of the gospel of Mark.
Last week we started the series looking at the first day of Jesus last week, the story of Palm Sunday/Triumphal Entry found in Mark 11:1-11.
Today we are looking at the events and encounters that took place on what many call Holy Monday. To explore the events of Holy Monday we’ll look at Mark 11:12-21 together.
Mark 11:12-21 says, “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
So what is going on in these two encounters? What in the world is Jesus doing in cursing a fig tree, and seemingly violently throwing out moneychangers? These two encounters seem so unlike Jesus so just what is actually going on? Well let’s unpack both encounters and see what they mean and what they have to do with each other.
First, let’s look at the beginning of Holy Monday, the cursing of the fig tree. We read, “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.”
So Jesus, the day after the Triumphal Entry leaves Bethany heading for Jerusalem. He is hungry and sees a fig tree in leaf. When he gets to the tree he sees that there are leaves but no fruit. And he seemingly gets mad, even though it wasn’t the season for figs. And then he curses the fig tree. What in the word is going on here? What is Jesus doing in cursing a fig tree when it wasn’t even the season for figs?
First of all, this act of cursing a fig tree is actually a dramatic, acted parable indicating the meaning of what Jesus was going to do in the temple. It was a dramatic acted parable of judgment. To understand more of what is taking place we need to look back at Mark 1, to the purpose that Mark had in writing his gospel. Look at Mark 1:1 which says, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” This enacted parable of the fig tree spells out again Jesus identity and authority. His identity and authority as King of Kings (as seen in Mark 11) and as Lord of Lords. His authority over all of creation. You see in Jesus’ day there were symbolism behind the fig tree, and here Jesus is showing his power, his authority, and his identity through the cursing of the tree. In Jesus day there were 3 things that the fig tree came to represent in Jewish culture and in Greco-Roman culture. The first thing the fig tree was associated with was various deities, primarily the tree god Dionysus. This shows his authority not only over Israel but over the gods of the empire. Also in Greco/Roman culture the sudden withering or blossoming of any tree was considered a powerful omen of coming destruction or blessing. A withering tree outside of Jerusalem would be considered, especially by Mark’s gentile readers as a sign of disaster for that city. And lastly the fig tree in Jewish scriptures was symbolic of the nation of Israel.
Also in relation to the connection between the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple, we see that this tree was pointing to something but not delivering. It was the signpost pointing to a reality. And so if the fig tree represents Israel, then Jesus is not only judging the fig tree for not being a signpost pointing to a reality, but he is using the tree as a symbol of coming judgment on the nation of Israel and the temple. That the nation of Israel and the temple, though they appear to be leafy, are not keeping with the fruit that Jesus is calling them to. And so Jesus was not out to condemn a non-bearing tree; he was pronouncing judgment against the religious barrenness of the nation. The tree is not in trouble, the nation is. The tree has not rejected its Messiah, the nation has. The tree is being used as a symbol, not the object itself, of the judgment.
So after Jesus cursing the fig tree with these words, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” he moves on to Jerusalem where he enters the Temple and begins to cleanse it by driving out the moneychangers, and to turn over the tables of those selling animals. There are a few things that we need to get out of the way when we look at this part of the text. First, those who were the moneychangers and sellers of the animals were there because people needed to buy animals for their sacrifice. People came to Jerusalem and the temple to sacrifice to cover over their sins. Many of these people would bring their own animals to be sacrificed. Animals that they had raised, had cared for, had invested time and money into, all to be brought to the temple to be sacrificed by the priest. But the priests were ripping people off by telling them the animal they bought to sacrifice didn’t meet their purity standards. People were thus forced to purchase a “temple certified” animal. The priests would then confiscate the allegedly substandard animal, only to turn around and sell it to the next worshiper who was told the animal they had bought was substandard. It was a money-making scam.
Secondly, many see this story as Jesus endorsing violence. You’ll notice that in this text no where does Jesus actually attack the people or animals in the temple. He does whip them, or hit them at all. He drives them out, he overturns the tables, he judges the entire temple system. But it is not a violent act towards people. Greg Boyd has this to say about the supposed violence in this story, “while Jesus’ behavior was certainly aggressive, there’s no indication whatsoever that it involved violence. True, Jesus turned tables over. But this was to put an immediate stop to the corrupt commerce that was taking place as well as perhaps to free the caged animals. There’s no mention of any person or animal getting hurt in the process. And yes, Jesus made a whip. But there’s no mention of him using it to strike any animal, let alone human. Cracking a loud whip has always been the most effective means of controlling the movement of large groups of animals. Jesus wanted to create a stampede of animals out of the temple, and there’s no reason to conclude he used the whip for any other purpose than this.”
After Jesus clears out the moneychangers and drives out the animals he quotes from two separate Old Testament passages to claim the temple for what it should be, a signpost pointing to a reality, and not the reality itself. First he quotes from Isaiah 56:6-7 which says, “And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” And then he quotes from Jeremiah 7:9-11 which says, “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, "We are safe"--safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” Both of these passages and Jesus act in the temple point us to the issue. That the religious leaders and the temple system were actually getting in the way of people experiencing and encountering God. The religious leaders as I mentioned above were ripping people off. The system itself was corrupt. Jesus was bringing judgment upon it. The temple was supposed to be a signpost pointing to the deeper reality of God and his love for humanity. Instead, it became the reality. You see the temple had been intended to symbolize God’s presence among his people for the sake of the world. But the way that it was organized when Jesus came to cleanse it, was not about the inclusion of other nations, but Gods’ seeming exclusion of them. The religious leaders were living out what the prophet Jeremiah had said all those years before, and so Jesus had no other choice than to judge it and cleanse it. It had jumped the tracks and was now running in the track of it’s own making. It had lost its reason for being. Jesus was judging it, and shutting it down. It would still go on for a few more years until Rome destroyed it in 70 AD but it had lost it’s true purpose of being a signpost. NT Wright says it like this, “The sacrificial system was therefore doubly redundant. It was part of the Temple system which had come to stand for the wrong things. It was part of the signpost system set up by God to draw the eye to the climatic achievement of Jesus himself on the cross.”
So the question that all of this raises in my mind is have we as the church gotten off the rails? We are meant to be the signpost pointing to the reality, that of Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection and his love for the world. Have we been a signpost pointing to Jesus, a signpost pointing to ourselves, or making the church the reality, when it is about Jesus. Have we gotten in the way of others experiencing the love, grace, and forgiveness of Jesus? What would Jesus say or do if he came in this morning? What tables would he need to flip in our own lives? What things would he judge in our corporate lives that has gotten in the way of being inclusive and allowing others to experience him? What would he drive out of us to make room for others to find him? Those are the things that I want to unpack together in our corporate discussion time.
1. What are your thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc.. regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. What tables would Jesus need to flip in our own lives? What things would he judge in our corporate lives that have gotten in the way of being inclusive and allowing others to experience him? What would he drive out of us to make room for others to find him?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?