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,
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.
"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
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:
Mark as a story-teller.
fig tree as a symbol.
temple as the center of power in Jerusalem.
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
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
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
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
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
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
therefore, they began to look for a way to kill him. They always
But the week has just
begun. Jesus has much more to say and do. And so do we.