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No Figs on Monday

Sermon - 3/05/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 11:12-19

I want to focus on the days of holy week over the next 5 Sundays, and I'm going to take us through the five days of holy week leading up to Friday, following the gospel of Mark.

Now, astute students who are participating in our Tuesday evening Lenten study will quickly perceive that I'm following the same outline that we are using in that study.  So yes, I'm double-dipping.  The sermon is in a sense preparation for the discussion that comes on the following Tuesday.  So if this sermon piques your interest, you're welcome to come join us -- we're studying The Last Week by Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.

I'll warn you -- we had so many people come to the first class last Tuesday that I had to go buy out the supply at Barnes & Noble (hopefully they have more in, or you could check Borders or other bookstores).

That book begins with Sunday, Palm Sunday.  Being the clever guy that I am I figured I might save that for a later time -- maybe Palm Sunday would be a good day to pick up on that theme J.  This morning, instead, I want to begin with Monday, with a rather peculiar story that occurs in Mark's gospel on that Monday.  So we pick up after the triumphant entry, Mark tells us in the 11th chapter, verses 12-19:

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

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, ‘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.’
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city

This so-called "cleansing" of the temple is probably familiar to us, though we often associate it with Sunday, because in other gospels the chronology is a little different and appears on the same day as the triumphant entry.  But here in Mark it's on the next day.

What on earth do we do with this other story, this cursing of the fig tree?  And how on earth is it relevant to anything today?  If we take this story literally, Jesus comes off as either a spoiled brat who is used to getting his way, or a lunatic who's totally out of touch with reality.  I mean, take your choice, it's not a very appealing choice for our Lord and savior.  Mark is very clear -- this is not the season for figs.  How on earth does Jesus expect to find any figs?  You would think the son of God would know better -- you know, there's not figs on fig trees until later in the Fall.  So why does Jesus get upset and curse this tree?

And then he comes to the temple, where folks are conducting business as usual.  They're changing their Roman coins (which have graven images on them) for Jewish coins, because those Roman coins are not allowed into the temple.  And then they use those Jewish coins to purchase animals for sacrifice because they have come from a long distance in most cases and it would be unreasonable for them to bring animals to sacrifice in the temple.  And Jesus comes and he upsets all of that.  Turns over the tables, kicks people out, creates quite a commotion.

So I suppose the moral of the story might be:  never come to church on an empty stomach J.  Grumpy worshipers are not happy worshipers, right?  I have a hunch that Mark wants to say something other than that.  

There are 4 keys, I'd like to suggest, for understanding this story:

  1. Understanding Mark as a story-teller.

  2. Understanding the fig tree as a symbol.

  3. Understanding the temple as the center of power in Jerusalem.

  4. Understanding Jesus as a prophet.

So, starting with the first one, understanding Mark as a story-teller.  Now this of course is not any story, it is the gospel story.  And Mark is the very first person to write a gospel story.  He creates a whole new genre of literature.  And it is, therefore, one of the greatest original works of literature ever written.  Mark is not just reporting on the day in the life of Jesus, he is witnessing to a life of revelation in God.

Therefore, the manner in which he crafts that story is often a very important clue to understanding it.  And this is a prime example.  Mark frequently uses a technique scholars call "framing", in which one story is framed on either end by another story.  Borg and Crossan, in their book, give an example from the 3rd chapter of Mark, so I'm going to use a different example from the 5th chapter of Mark.  Jairus, a leader in the Synagogue, comes to Jesus because his daughter is deathly ill, and he begs Jesus to come to his home to heal her.  On his way to his home, he encounters a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years and who reaches out in the crowd just to touch the hem of Jesus' garment.  And instantly is healed.  And Jesus wants to know, who has touched him?  When he finds her, he says 'daughter, your faith has made you well'.  

After that, we return now to the story, the drama, of the daughter of Jairus only to learn that now the daughter has died.  This little delay has cost her life.  But that's not a problem, of course, for Jesus.  He raises the girl from her bed, and then we learn the age of this little girl.  Now if you were listening to this story, what would you guess her age will be?  12.  She's twelve years old -- she's the same age, she was born when the bleeding of the woman started.  

So, in other words, it's not two stories, it's one story interwoven together so that each enlightens the other and we make that connection between the stopped bleeding and the stopped heart.  A life for a life.  Only Jesus comes and says 'That's not the way this story is going to end'.  And hence we get a foreshadowing of what's to come in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Mark uses this very same technique in this story, in the temple incident, and that leads us to the second key to understanding this story--understanding the fig tree as a symbol.  The incident in the temple -- the overturning of the tables and the like -- is framed by this fig tree story.  We didn't hear the second half because that occurs on Tuesday (we'll deal with that next Sunday).  But in the second half, Jesus and the disciples, Tuesday morning, walk by the tree and discover it has withered.  So the incident in the temple is framed on either side by the story of the fig tree.  It's Mark's way of saying the fig tree is like the temple, and the temple is like the fig tree.  There's lots of leaves, there's lots of activity, but there's no fruit.  And that begs the question:  what is the fruit that Jesus seeks at the temple which is not in season?

To answer that question, we need to turn to the third key, understanding the temple as the center of power in Jerusalem.  That the temple was the center of religious power, I think, is clear.  The temple was physically an enormous, dominating structure, equal to anything in Rome.  It dominated the skyline of Jerusalem.  It was built on a raised platform, 40 acres in total, of which now the Wailing Wall is the only thing that remains, still there in Jerusalem to this day.  And the temple mediates the presence, the forgiveness, the hope of God.  It is the pride and joy of the Jewish people.  But the temple is not only significant religiously, it is significant politically. 

Herod the Great built the temple, starting long before the birth of Jesus and continuing on after the birth of Jesus before it was finished.  He built that temple not to show his devotion to God, but to cement his power from Rome.  The temple, with its aristocratic priests, became the center of Jewish collaboration with the Roman government.  As was especially evident if you remember at the end of holy week in the trial of Jesus when Jesus goes back and forth between temple and palace, between high priest and Governor.

When Jewish zealots took over the temple, about 30 years later in the year 66 C.E., they threw out the high priests, and their first act was to burn all of the records of the debts held by the aristocratic families of their land holdings (of the peasants and all the people surrounding Jerusalem).  They burned all those records.  And then they appointed one of their own, a peasant, as the new high priest.  Rome, of course, cannot tolerate such an insurrection, comes down with its legions, and a couple years later puts down the insurrection.  And to guarantee that it never, ever happens again, that there will never, ever be any political threat, what do they do?  They destroy the temple.  Tear it down to its very foundation.  

So understanding the temple as the center of both religious and political power, and the collaboration between those two, is the third key to understanding this text.

Fourth, and last, understanding Jesus as a prophet.  We're used to thinking of Jesus as the Son of God, and I think that sometimes we forget that Jesus speaks and acts in the prophetic tradition that has a very long, established history.  And here again is a very prime example, evident in two distinct ways:  in the actions and the words of Jesus.

First, the words.  Mark has Jesus quoting two prophets.  From Isaiah 56 -- "my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations".  And then from Jeremiah 7, verse 11:  "This house, which is called by my name, has become a den of robbers".  In other words, one prophet upholds the ideal of what a house of God should be, and the other what happens when that house is corrupted by wealth and power.

The use of these two passages in this story is not, I repeat, it is not a commentary on the relatively benign practice of exchanging coins and selling animals for sacrifice in the temple.  The objection of the prophets over and over again, was the lack of justice and righteousness among the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem.  And in that passage from Jeremiah 7, to which Jesus alludes in this text, the prophet stands in the gate of the temple and he says:  

Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.

8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?

And thus by quoting the end of this text, Jesus is making the same accusation.  Not against the temple or the priests for being what they are, no more than he curses the fig tree for being what it is.  Rather, he curses them for what they lack.  The fruit of justice and righteousness. 

And please note, if you read prophets carefully, I think you will find, as Dominic Crossan says, that God insists not just on justice and worship or righteousness, but on justice over worship.  Over and over again we read that God rejects the worship of the people for their lack of justice, but never, ever, does He reject their justice for lack of worship.

Hosea 6:6, quoted by Jesus a couple of times, for instance, says "I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings".

And so now we come to the actions of Jesus, often portrayed as the use of violence in the temple, and therefore a justification for use of force by Christians to accomplish God's will.  Seen as a prophetic act, the cleansing of the temple is neither a cleansing, nor violent.  Rather, this is a parable in action.  Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree for its lack of fruit, he is now defying the temple for its lack of justice.  It is exactly and precisely what Mahatma Gandhi did when he converted sea water to salt in defiance of the British government.  It is exactly and precisely what [Reverends] Philip and Daniel Berrigan did, when they poured their blood on draft records in defiance of the Vietnam war.  It is exactly and precisely what Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat on that bus in defiance of white privilege.  It is exactly what Peg Morton did, that 80 year-old Quaker from Eugene, when she sat in front of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, in defiance of U.S. military involvement with military dictatorships in Central and South America.  An offense for which she spent 4 months in a federal prison last year.

It is exactly, and precisely, because Jesus symbolically shut down business as usual in the temple that he threatened not just the religious authorities of the temple, but political power of the palace and the collaboration between the two.

And therefore, therefore, they began to look for a way to kill him.  They always do.

But the week has just begun.  Jesus has much more to say and do.  And so do we.


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