|Jesus examining the fig tree with Temple Mount in the background.|
Mark 11:12-22 tells us the remarkable account of the fig tree and the temple. These stories are strung together to teach us a number of things about how our faith might be hi-jacked to represent not the character, image and heart of God but nationalism and earthly systems of power, oppression and corruption.
As Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, he notices a fig tree and examines it to see if there is fruit. Finding no fruit, he curses it, saying, "may no one eat fruit from you again." What's going on? Why would Jesus do this? What does he have against fig trees? The cursing of the fig tree is a prophetic act that hints at what might happen in Jerusalem.
When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem he makes his way to the temple. Actually, if you look at verse 11, you will notice that Jesus had been to the temple the night before but returned to where he was staying because it was late. I find this curious, wondering if he took note of what was occurring in the temple and what it stood for and returned home to consider what he saw.
In the morning we see Jesus entering the Temple and driving out the animals and money changers and those who were selling animals for sacrifice. And Jesus says this, "My house will be a house of prayer for all nations but you have made it a den of thieves." Was he concerned about selling stuff in the Temple? Was he concerned that the activity would disrupt prayer time? Seriously, this is how the account is often taught.
But there is some much deeper taking place.
Jesus is quoting Jeremiah 7:11 which says this, "Has this house which bears my name become a den of robbers to you?" This house which bears my name... can you hear the zeal of God for his name. As in Jeremiah, there is a judgment intended. It is a judgment on what the House of God has come to mean. The word literally means cave of brigands... or revolutionaries.
N. T. Wright says this in his book Mark For Everyone: "The word brigand in Jesus day wasn't a word for "thief" or "robber" in the ordinary sense, but for the revolutionaries, those we today would call the ultra-orthodox, plotting and ready to use violence to bring about their nationalist dreams. Part of Jesus charge against his fellow Jews was that Israel as a whole had used it's vocation, to be a light for the world, as an excuse for a hard narrow, nationalist piety and politics in which the rest of the world was to be not enlightened but condemned."
The call of Israel to be a light to the world had been in some real sense hi-jacked not to include others but exclude them and even condemn them. So God's house had come to mean something completely other than what it was intended to be. The Temple had come to symbolize nationalism, oppression, collusion with power, with blood shed and the exclusion of those God intended to bring into his fold.
That's a very potent charge Jesus is bringing. In fact this is the incident that directly precedes his captivity and execution on the cross.
As Jesus leaves Jerusalem, we see that the fig tree has withered and died. And seventy years later, the Temple comes down leaving no stone atop another. It is completely demolished. But John's account in John 2, alludes to the resurrection of Jesus' body as the new temple.
I think there is crucial significance for us today. We don't have a central temple, Jesus is now considered the Temple and we are united with Christ. As Paul says, we rise joined together to become a temple... Peter speaks of Royal priesthood, a holy nation with Jesus as the cornerstone of a new temple. So this story is not simply about a Temple in Jerusalem but about how the call of God and the privileges God has given us are hi-jacked by power and nationalism to become known not for justice, mercy and other-centeredness but of power, privilege, self-protection and nationalism.
I have noticed that throughout history whenever the church has colluded with whatever empire exists, we have become corrupt, supporting not the image of God and the call of God toward others but for the preservation of self and nation. Perhaps an empire seeks to capture the church for it's own purposes. Or perhaps we the church are seduced by the desire for power---maybe even to do good things. Never-the-less, injustice always comes along with this collusion of God's people and the powers that be.
--How are we as God's people becoming more concerned with nationalism?
--In what ways has our faith become more or less combined with country and our own ethnicity?
--How would Jesus respond to our politics today?
--And who would Jesus invite into his new community?
--Who are the modern Gentiles today? Who are the ones we demonize?
--And how are they being condemned?
--What is our call to them?
--How protective do we feel around our nation and faith?
--What can that feeling tell us?
--How are faith and nation (or party) combined in our country? your country?
--What kind of community did Jesus envision?
-- How are the New Testament discussions around Jews and Gentiles similar to our discussions today around those we would like to exclude or those we consider unfit or unclean?
--How have we substituted our understanding of the gospel from the vantage point of our own nation from the gospel the New Testament is telling?
--And how is our reputation doing as God's people? How well are we imaging God in our relations with others?
I think these are good Lenten reflection, discussion or journal questions for us as a church. I wonder sometimes... I just wonder if we do not see miracles more because we have relied more on joining up with political kinds of power than relying on the power of the Spirit.
And I wonder if we see miracles more often in other countries not because we are too rational in our faith but because we are too national in our faith? And we have in some sense substituted the power of human governing systems for the amazing power of God and God's kingdom.