46. Mark 11:12-24: Another Sandwich

 Cursing of the Fig Tree (11:12-14; Part 1)

Hope you’re hungry. Mark’s serving up another sandwich. One story split in two and another inserted between those two parts. Each story helps interpret the other.

Speaking of hunger, Jesus is hungry on the way from Bethany. He sees a fig tree and inspects it for fruit, and is disappointed to find none, even though it is not the season for it. So he curses it. What’s up with that? Is Jesus ignorant? Petulant and demanding? Neither, I suspect.

Having the cleansing of the temple episode inserted in this story gives us a decisive clue. The fig tree could be used as a symbol for Israel. Micah 7:1-2:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who,
    after the summer fruit has been gathered,
    after the vintage has been gleaned,
finds no cluster to eat;
    there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.
The faithful have disappeared from the land,
    and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and they hunt each other with nets.

The temple was the most important symbol of the nation. If we allow these two stories to talk to each other, it becomes apparent that the fig tree = temple and Jesus action here portends his rejection of the temple.

Cleansing of the Temple (11:15-19)

Jesus enters the temple he had surveyed the night before. Seeing the money-changers and animals in the outer court, Jesus stages another piece of street theater. He disrupts the money-changing and animal buying and thus prevents the sacrificial system, the temple’s major role, from functioning. It’s street theater, symbolic action, temporary. Jesus is not trying to effect some systemic change to make the temple function better. He’s announcing its condemnation (a lá the cursed fig tree). We saw earlier that Jesus has appropriated some critical temple functions to himself (forgiveness, 2:1-12) forming a one-man counter-temple movement. This action continues his assault on this venerable institution.

“It is the only account in the Gospels in which Jesus engages in any kind of violent action against others, though there is no hint that he attempted to harm anyone; he may have intended only to force a halt to the objectionable trading operations going on in the sacred precincts of the temple” (Hurtado, Mark, 271)

Jesus charges that the temple has become not “the house of prayer for all nations” it should have been but rather a “den of robbers” (v.17). The word translated “robbers” (or “brigands”) does refer to commercial activities. Rather it refers to revolutionaries who were manipulating the temple and its services for their narrow nationalistic purposes (Wright, Mark:190). No longer “for all nations,” the temple had lost it reason for being. Jesus’ action marks it “destined for destruction” which happened in the war with Rome in 70 a.d.

This was no trivial or entertaining sideshow. It was a serious politico-religious action. Deadly serious. Now the chief priest and scribes join the Pharisees and Herodians (3:6) in seeking to kill Jesus. He was winning over the masses and they could not have that.

Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:20-25; Part 2)

The next morning the disciples saw the withered-up fig tree, roots and all. This again highlights the finality of Jesus’ condemnation of the temple. Peter, seeing this, is non-plussed by what it signifies. Jesus tells him and the rest of the disciples to have faith in God. Even if the temple is to be destroyed, unthinkable to most Jews as this was, continue to believe in God (see 10:27).

He follows up with a reference to “this mountain” being thrown in the sea by prayer. What is “this mountain”? The temple mount. God is powerful to overthrow even the temple system, which is exactly what Jesus has just done. Disciples have only to trust God in prayer. He generalizes from this event to “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

“One more thing. In encouraging his followers to pray with confident boldness for the present order to be replaced by God’s new order (‘this mountain’, in context, almost certainly refers to the Temple mountain), Jesus is quite clear that there can be no personal malice or aggression involved in such work. Even at the very moment where Jesus is denouncing the system that had so deeply corrupted God’s intention for Israel, his final word is the stern command to forgive. Perhaps only those who have learnt what that means will be in a position to act with Jesus’ authority against the injustice and wickedness of our own day” (Wright, Mark, 193).


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