Having entered Jerusalem the day before, viewed the Temple, and then returned to Bethany late in the day, on what we now call Palm Sunday; Jesus returns to Jerusalem. And thus begins a most difficult day to interpret - Monday.
Verses 12 to 25 form what is called, "a Mark Sandwich." That is, we begin with one incident, which has a second incident, followed by a return to the first incident. In this case, we have:
- Jesus finds no figs on a tree and curses it; his disciples over hear his curse.
- Jesus disrupts access to the Temple and explains his actions; the chief priests and scribes keep looking for ways to kill Jesus.
- The next day, the fig tree is found withered to its roots; Jesus teaches about trusting God without hesitation and about praying.
Just like a regular sandwich, we are meant to digest all three layers at once - not first interpret the top piece of bread, then the filling, then the bottom piece of bread. The "filling" helps us understand the "bread," and the outer pieces of bread help us to understand the middle.
This is impossible to do in reality, since the act of reading is linear: first verse, then the next, then the next, then the next, and so on. However, we'll take a stab at it here.
The first thing to note about the top layer of bread is that it is very seedy.
That is, the writer of the text makes comments about Jesus' internal state and motivation that are assumed by Jesus' behaviour, but in fact could only be known by Jesus verbally reporting how he was feeling, why he was doing what he was doing. For example,
he was hungry. (Verse 12)
How does the author know this? Having just left the place where they were staying overnight in Bethany, presumably Jesus has had whatever was offered for the morning meal and is no more hungry than anyone else. And indeed, taking any action because he was physically hungry is a contradiction of his refusal to be tempted by Satan during his 40 day fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13), "One does not live by bread alone."
he went to see whether perhaps he would find any (figs) on it. (Verse 13)
How does the author know why Jesus went over to the fig tree? How does he know Jesus went looking for figs, or expected to find figs? Jesus was not an idiot. He knew like everyone else alive on the planet at the time also knew that fig trees do not have fruit on them in the Spring. (Which is the time of year it must have been, since it is the time of the Passover Festival.)
So if for this one time, we allow ourselves to edit the Holy Text to eliminate the author's presumptions about Jesus' internal state and motivation, Verses 12 to 14 read:
12 On the following day (Jesus set out to return to the Temple) they came from Bethany. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves. 14 He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it.
Now this is still a pretty strange piece of bread all by itself, but let's put it back with the Mark Sandwich and wonder how this helps us understand what happens next at the Temple in Jerusalem.
When Jesus enters the Temple - actually the outer courtyard of the Temple - he finds there the normal and NEEDED activities going on: money exchanging; selling doves; bringing goods into the Temple. These activities were long-standing practices that were all necessary in order for the Temple to properly function as a place of worship and sacrifice. The money exchangers were needed to allow exchanging Roman coins with the image of Caesar, "Son of God," on them (which violated the commandments to have no other Gods, and to not make any false images or idols) for coins that could be used to pay the annual Temple tax. And doves that were needed for the ritual sacrifices that were offered at the Temple. Thus, these actions of Jesus are like a sit-in or other political demonstration intended to "shut down" the Temple.
Why does Jesus want to shut down the Temple? He says,
You have made it a DEN of robbers. (Quoting Jeremiah 7:11. I strongly recommend reading the entire Jeremiah 7:8-15 passage. Jeremiah condemns the people for failing to follow God's ways in their daily lives, but then coming to the Temple for safety, counting on God to protect them from being conquered by the latest Empire of the day.)
Notice that Jesus is not saying the Temple is the place where the robbery is happening. Quite the opposite, it is the place where the robbers are safe - it is their hide out.
So the money exchanging and selling of doves, etc. is not the problem. The problem is that the Temple has become a hiding place for robbers.
How has that happened?
The history is complicated, but basically what has happened is that by the time of Jesus, the Romans have been appointing the chief priest to act as their local agent in Jerusalem. This means that the Temple has become not only the location of the Ark of the Covenant; the Holy of Holies; the single, central, pinnacle of worship; it has also become the headquarters of Roman collaboration.
Gee, I wonder how Jesus feels about the Roman occupation and the chief priests collaboration with them? I wonder how the crowds felt about them, and about Jesus's actions and teachings:
the whole crowd were spellbound by his teaching (Verse 18)
I wonder how the chief priests felt about Jesus' actions and teachings:
they kept looking for a way to kill him (Verse 18)
I'll say more about this later, but note that in Mark, there is no suggestion whatsoever that the killing of Jesus is a sacrifice for sins. His execution is about his proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand - and thereby being an alternative to the already present Roman Empire.
Reading the Jeremiah passage, we find that he is condemning the Temple under quite different circumstances, but for similar reasons: Those who worship are robbing the poor and denying justice for the needy; and God rejects worship when there is no justice.
Now to return to the first slice of bread. Is it fair to think there is a parallel between the tree's leaves and the people's worship; and the tree's figs and the people doing God's justice?
There is nothing abnormal about the tree; it is just doing its usual thing. There is nothing abnormal about the Temple; it is just doing its usual thing. But unlike a fig tree, there is no "season" for justice. Justice is always in season. The Temple has leaves (people worshiping) but no fruit (people doing justice). And Jesus shuts it down in a way that is paralleled by his actions with the fig tree.
I am also somewhat stumped by the second slice of bread in Mark Sandwich, Verses 20 to 25.
In response to Peter pointing out that the fig tree has withered, Jesus' response is about having unhesitant faith / trust in God.
The image of casting a mountain into the sea should not be taken literally. It is an exaggerated image meant to convey just how serious Jesus has been about having faith / trust in God without ANY doubt or hesitation. (And remember, back in the Garden of Eden, the work of the snake was precisely to ask a question that raised doubt and hesitation on the part of Eve, "Is it true that God has said ...?" Genesis 3:1)
The assertion in Verse 24: "So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it (alternatively, "are receiving it"), and it will be yours," is quite problematic. It makes a promise - "it will be yours" - based on a condition - "believe that you have received it." Too many faithful / believing / trusting people live with the anguish of a heart-felt prayer that was not granted, that they did not receive. Why? The logical answer based on this verse is that they did not believe sufficiently - they hesitated or doubted. Janis Joplin ("Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz") and Flip Wilson ("I'm gonna pray now. You want anything?") have rightly mocked the logic of this understanding.
But if we remember that we are eating a sandwich, then we find that Verse 25 has an additional ingredient for our praying - forgiveness. Just as hesitation and doubt cause a break in unwavering loyalty / relationship with God; so forgiveness is the key to restoration / reconciliation. So we can perhaps paraphrase Verses 20 to 25 this way:
Begin your praying with a forgiving and forgiven heart. Align your heart with God's heart, so that your desires are God's desires. And then you - and God - will be able to do all that Love has the power to do.
I haven't yet heard of anyone literally causing a mountain to be cast into a sea. But I have heard of at least one man who had the courage to trust God enough to proclaim the reality of God's presence and of God's Kingdom of nonviolent justice - even in the face of torture and execution by an Empire based on unjust violence.
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* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.