Trees and Temples Under Attack

Continuing the walk through Holy Week with the man Jesus, as seen in Mark’s account of the gospel.

Mark 11:12-25 (ESV)

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

One of the more common human experiences just might be frustration. We all feel it, though it is surely true that some of us fall into it far more easily than others. I wonder—was Jesus exhibiting frustration in the two incidents recorded as taking place the day after Palm Sunday? Is this how the one hailed as king would act in his reigning capacity? Cursing fig trees, overturning business in the temple? Acting impulsively and exhibiting his authority over things and men, just because he could, or just because he was momentarily frustrated and wanted folks to know that his desires really needed to be tended? That would be disastrous—human frustrations linked to divine powers to act on them.

I confess that I haven’t fully comprehended what was going on with the fig tree. Without borrowing from the other gospel accounts of the incident, I’m at a loss to see fully the connection between the cursing of the tree and the explanation given in the latter portion of the text for today. It appears to be a simple demonstration, an arbitrary one, of the principle later spelled out: the normal limitations of nature, the things that often cause us momentary frustrations, do not apply to the people of faith. Things that are apparently impossible need not be seen as such when we trust the power that made nature more than the power of nature. And the power to forgive sins falls into seems to be linked to that which is impossible by nature, yet possible for the person of faith because of what the ruler of nature is about to do in the coming days.

And perhaps that’s the problem in the temple. The power and wonder and transformation of human life through the forgiving desires of God had been obscured by the day-to-day business of conducting ceremonies and observances. The very power of prayer to enact and enable the forgiveness of sins, the one world-changing activity for which all of the system had been designed to draw attention to had been lost in the shuffle of making change, providing the right offerings, and, oh by the way, turning a profit.

We’re quite adept at experiencing frustration over the things that seem to get in our way as we walk along roads and look for some good and pleasant things; are we frustrated similarly by the things of God put to mundane use, removing the transforming power of the grace of God we think we’re all about? It’s Holy Week. It’s time to think about such things and ask such questions, not of the other, but of ourselves.

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3 thoughts on “Trees and Temples Under Attack

  1. I had always thought the fig tree was a symbol of the temple. It’s supposed to be bearing fruit (and the temple is supposed to be bringing people into relationship with God), but it’s not, so now its time is over. The fig tree withers – the temple is about to wither, too. The temple is also the mountain that will be thrown into the sea, literally when the Romans tear it down and figuratively when Jesus’s death ends the old sacrifices.

    And the end of the passage? The only connection I could make with the “mountain thrown into the sea” would be: Remember, when you pray for the end of something, that you are praying with forgiveness in your heart. Don’t pray out of anger. God has the power to do what you ask, but He has the power to judge you, too.

    But my fig tree-temple connection does make the last part a little more confusing, so maybe I’m wrong somewhere.

    Mark makes the connection between the fig tree and the temple more clearly than the other gospels do, I think, because he wraps the fig tree story around the temple-cleansing story.

    • I do think the connection is there; it makes it parallel to the vineyard owner coming for his share of the harvest. So what is the addition? Not quite sure, which is why I’m throwing the forgiveness theme as part of the mix.

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