Jesus acts out the parable of the fig tree and cleanses the Temple in Mark 11:12-25. To understand both we must look at them together as a single story.
If you look at the fig tree event by itself, it’s bewildering and Jesus even seems to be acting like an upset child, cursing the tree for doing what fig trees always do, growing leaves in the spring and not bearing fruit until later.
If we look only at the Temple cleansing story it seems like Jesus is protesting commercial exercise in the Temple courts, which means he’s only acting to clean up the Temple and make it a place for prayer and worship of God.
By wrapping the fig tree story around the Temple cleansing episode, Mark is telling us that the one story teaches us about the other. Both actions are a dramatic parable of judgement. Jesus is announcing God’s condemnation of the Temple and all it has become in the national life of the Jewish people.
In cleansing the Temple Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11 reminding those listening that the Temple has always been a bit ambiguous. From the days when Solomon built the first Temple it was clear that it was not to be the eternal dwelling place of God.
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven,cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
God blessed Israel through the Temple, yet he made it clear that if Israel took the God’s dwelling and His promises for granted, then the Temple itself would come under His judgement. This is what the first few chapters of the Book of Jeremiah, including Jesus’ quote from chapter 7 verse 11, are all about. In the 1st century, God’s house was certainly taken for granted.
The word “robber” in the NIV can also be translated as “insurrectionist” or “brigand”. What Jeremiah and Jesus were referring to weren’t thieves as we think of them. They were referring to revolutionaries, people we would today consider extreme fundamentalists, ultra-orthodox, or perhaps terrorists. These were people plotting and ready and willing to use violence to achieve their nationalist dreams.
Jesus accused his fell0w-Jews of using the national vocation of Israel, to be the light of the world, as an excuse to create extreme and narrow rules regarding piety and politics that, rather than bringing light to the rest of the world, condemned the rest of the world. This nationalistic attitude is quite apparent in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the tendency toward violent revolutions in Judea during the 1st century.
God had come to dwell in the Temple for the sake of the world, but those in charge had taken God’s presence for granted and used it not to welcome the nations, but to exclude them. The brigands and insurrectionists, bent on violent rebellion against Rome, had made the Temple the focus of their ideology. The Temple leaders themselves were notorious for their lavish and oppressive lifestyles. Thus the Temple had come to represent violence towards outsiders and injustice toward the people of Israel. Like the fig tree, the Temple is subject to Jesus’ words of judgement. In verse 23 shortly after leaving the Temple Mount, when Jesus speaks of telling a mountain to throw itself into the sea, what mountain do you think he’s talking about?
How did Jesus’ actions demonstrate his judgement of the Temple? He and his disciples occupied the Temple courts for several hours shutting down the afternoon sacrifice. The sacrificial system was the very reason for the Temple’s existence. By stopping the sacrificial process even briefly, Jesus was making it clear to all that the Temple was under God’s judgement. It’s reason for existence is being removed.
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Repeatedly, Jesus spoke of his death as a sacrifice. He is about to deal with sin, injustice and violence once and for all, but in a manner that no one expects. Through his death on the cross the ultimate perfect sacrifice who met all the requirements of the covenants God made with His people throughout the Old Testament, satisfied the requirements of the Fall and brought us freedom so that we might dwell eternally in peace, love, and justice of God.
Those religious leaders who were at the Temple that day recognized the judgement that Jesus was placing on them. It’s at this point that they decide he must die.
Still today there are many places in the world where power is wielded in the interests of the powerful rather in generosity towards the powerless. Those places are where Jesus wants to take the Church today and it can be just as dangerous to do so now as it was for him.
Are you ready?
Notice the end of this passage. Jesus has just condemned the religious system that has corrupted God’s plan for the people of Israel, and now he closes by commanding his followers to forgive. So in confronting wickedness and injustice in the world, Jesus leaves no room for any malice towards those we confront. Jesus died to save not just his followers, but also those religious leaders, leading the nation astray. Only Christ’s perfect love makes it possible for us to follow in his footsteps bringing justice and the light of freedom to the world. May you find rest in him and be filled with his love and freely pour out from his abundance to the world around you.
Activities for kids during Holy Week
Check out these three websites for some ideas. They range from very simple to elaborate. Make it something your child can use for play and imagination to help them always remember this story.