My wife and I have three kids between the ages of five and eight, which means life is never dull around our house. With kids you get questions. Lots and lots of questions. Some of the questions we get a lot lately start with the words “What if?” As in “What if turtles COULD eat people?” Or “What if our yard WAS big enough for a pony?” Most of the “what if?” questions thrown around at our house deal in fanciful hypotheticals and impossibilities. But I’ve got a “what if?” myself that sincerely frightens me.
In each of the canonical gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) a great climax of sorts builds as Jesus and his followers make one final trip to Jerusalem for one final Passover. We often call this event the Triumphal Entry. If you’ve read the gospel accounts, you’ll remember that Jesus rode into Jerusalem with people shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” It feels like the Son of God is about to become King of the world. The adoring crowd seems to expect something magnificent and climactic to happen as this rabbi, this prophet, this messiah rides in to the city of the king.
But Jesus didn’t call together an army or set up court or any other thing that the people expected. Instead, Mark 11:11 says, “And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”
That seems so strange. He’s made this climactic entry into the city and gone to the temple–the most sacred place for his fellow Jews– but he’s seen what’s going on in the temple, and he’s not happy. Imagine what all the people think–the people who threw their cloaks onto the ground for him and hailed him as the long-awaited messiah. If they were expecting a speech or a sign, they didn’t get it, at least not until the next morning.
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.
It seems like we have two different and somewhat unrelated events being recorded here by Mark. The first is this odd recounting of Jesus cursing–and killing–a fig tree. The second is what we often call Jesus’ cleansing the temple. We’ll start with the temple incident, but we’ll come back to the fig tree–Mark does–because they aren’t unrelated at all.
The temple was supposed to be the holiest of all places in the lives of the Jews. But Jesus arrives and doesn’t like what he finds. It looks good on the outside and has the appearance of health and vitality, but it’s dead on the inside. We know this is the case because of what Jesus does and says.
Now, commentators of all sorts draw all kinds of different lessons from Jesus’ actions here. Some say he is throwing out the money changers who are taking advantage of the poor. But notice that he also throws out those who are doing the buying! Others say he is running off peddlers who are occupying the only space in the temple courts where the Gentiles were allowed to come and pray, but that’s unlikely. This was the second version of the Temple. The temple Solomon built was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonian army. Herod the Great had enlarged and expanded the temple complex which now covered the same space as about 27 football fields [35 acres]. There was plenty of room to pray. Jesus isn’t as concerned about what is going on there as he is about who is going and coming there. Notice how Jesus interprets his own actions according to Mark 11:17.
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.”
These people who wear the right clothes and say the right prayers and come to the right festivals are nothing but a bunch of crooks! They aren’t living their lives for God; they just come to the temple courts and act like it. He calls all these people a bunch of crooks who have defiled and profaned God’s house, and that’s why he disrupts what they’re doing. Notice that he doesn’t strike them down. He, instead, is doing everything he can to get their attention. They’re walking around going about their normal business as if everything is okay. This is the temple, after all. They act as if everything is fine. Everything’s good. “Peace, peace,” they would say. Which was “shalom, shalom,” which meant all is right, all is good, everything is in harmony with God’s will. But Jesus says, “Wake up!” You aren’t living for God. You’re living for yourselves! You’ve made this place a den of robbers.
He, of course, was quoting from Jeremiah 7. Listen to the text starting in verse 1…
7:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 4 Do 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 deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
8 “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight….
It all looked good and healthy, but it was nothing but leaves. Just like the fig tree. The temple complex and it’s people had the appearance of health, but it wasn’t godly, because godliness always bears good fruit.
That’s why Jesus was so upset with the state of the temple, and that’s why he cursed the fig tree on the way to town that day. He did it loudly enough for his disciples to hear him, because he was making a point that what God could do to this fig tree he could do to a profaned temple and a profaning people.
You may know that earlier in his ministry, Jesus told a parable about an unfruitful fig tree. It’s in Luke 13:6-9, and it says, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
See, the people were God’s fig tree, and he had given them year after year after year to produce good fruit. What do you think it meant when, on the day after Jesus cursed the fig tree the disciples find it withered to the root? It meant next year had come.
We can be pretty confident that this is the lesson Jesus wanted us all to learn from these events, in part, because he used Jeremiah 7 to chastise the religious leaders and borrowed an image from Jeremiah 8 in cursing the fig tree. Remember that Jeremiah was speaking to a people who thought they had it all together and thought they were blessed and safe and comfortable in their temple, and God told them to get their lives right or the destruction that had happened to the Northern Kingdom would happen to them, too. Jesus is doing the same thing for the Jews of his day.
Hear how Jeremiah describes it in Jeremiah 8 starting in verse 5.
5 Why then has this people turned away
in perpetual backsliding?
They hold fast to deceit;
they refuse to return.
6 I have paid attention and listened,
but they have not spoken rightly;
no man relents of his evil,
saying, ‘What have I done?’
Everyone turns to his own course,
like a horse plunging headlong into battle.
7 Even the stork in the heavens
knows her times,
and the turtledove, swallow, and crane
keep the time of their coming,
but my people know not
the rules of the Lord. [How well does this describe the way people have received Jesus?]
8 “How can you say, ‘We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us’?
But behold, the lying pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie.
9 The wise men shall be put to shame;
they shall be dismayed and taken;
behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord,
so what wisdom is in them? [Didn’t Jesus find the same problems with the religious leaders of his day?]
10 Therefore I will give their wives to others
and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely. [It’s a den of robbers.]
11 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
12 Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among the fallen;
when I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
13 When I would gather them, declares the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered….”
This is scary stuff, which brings me back to my earlier question. What if Jesus looked at us and our churches and found nothing but leaves?
God is deadly serious about having people who bear good fruit. If we don’t know how to apply this lesson, then we can start by asking if we’re living up to the expectations of these texts. Are we fruitful, or are we just a bunch of crooks playing church? Look at what God said through Jeremiah! How do we treat people when we have the power to abuse or ignore them? To apply Jeremiah 7, what are we doing for the widows, orphans, and strangers? Could we do more? Are we bearing God’s fruit? This doesn’t just mean, are we baptizing people. This means, are our natures aligned with God’s? God is not a withered branch. If we live by his Spirit, then our lives will bear his fruit, and the fruit he bears is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
If we don’t bear these things, then we are not of the Spirit. Having been baptized does not guarantee that we are God’s people any more than being born a Jew in Jeremiah’s or Jesus’s day meant that their lives were aligned with God’s covenant expectations. Thankfully, God is patient. God wants to bless us and gather us to himself, but he will not have unfruitful people, because godliness always bears good fruit.