11 Then 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.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing 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. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
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; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He 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.”
And 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. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
I have included v.11 in today’s lesson, to note a point where Mark differs from Luke and Matthew. Mark tells us that Jesus went to the temple and looked around, then returns the following day, when he upsets the money changers and sellers in the temple court. Matthew and Luke have Jesus going directly to the temple after entering Jerusalem. Which way the event “actually” happened is not the point here. Mark is making a point about the temple by sandwiching that event into the cursing of the fig tree. Remember, we have seen repeatedly that Mark emphasizes one story, and links it to another, by sandwiching it into the second story – or interrupting one story with another that makes the point. So, we must look at the two stories together, not separately as we tend to do in the way Matthew tells the story. (Luke does not include the fig tree story right after the temple story at all.)
Jesus has gone back to Bethany to spend the night, possibly to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, his friends. On Monday morning, he walks into the city with his disciples. Being hungry, he walks over to a fig tree, but finds no figs, for it is not the season for figs. Don’t you think Jesus knew it was not the season for figs? He needs to make a point. The tree whose job it is to produce fruit to satisfy his hunger did not. And so it was cursed. Again, it seems a little odd to think of Jesus cursing a fig tree – but he is making a point.
And then, Jesus goes on into the city, and he goes to the temple. He drives out those who were buying and selling in the temple courts, and turns over the tables of the money changers. What we must realize is that these people did not casually come in and set up their market – they rented market space from the high priest; this money which was basically being extorted from the poor, was going into the high priest’s pockets. The priests enforced this by refusing to accept offerings of animals brought from home, finding a blemish; Roman coin could not be used, and must be exchanged for temple coins. All of this produced a profit for the high priest.
So – all of this was going on in the temple courts, but what was not going on was prayer. Jesus quotes Isaiah when he says, “My house shall be a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7), “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” And then he quotes Jeremiah 7:11, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.” The temple system was failing – it was not fulfilling the mission God had given; it was not a place of prayer for all nations. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, people oppressed the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the alien, and went after other gods, then came to the temple to claim God’s protection. The temple was not producing fruit. It was already cursed, by its own failures.
And then, Jesus and the disciples leave Jerusalem that evening, and they see that the fig tree has withered. They point it out to Jesus – the tree that has not given fruit is, in a little while, withered and dead; the temple that is not producing fruit, will, in a little while, be dead and withered.
The question that remains is – are we producing the fruit, fulfilling the mission that God has given us?