[This is part two in a series I’m doing following Holy Week in the Book of Mark. You can see part one here.]
Jesus Curses a Fig Tree and Cleanses the Temple
Here we get to see the beginning of a classic example of a “Markan Sandwich.” Mark was a very intentional writer. He often used a literary device than many people refer to as the sandwich method. Really it’s just a chiasm (half of the letter chi in Greek – or X in English). He starts off the story by talking about Jesus and a fruitless fig tree. He seemingly randomly gets very upset about it not having fruit (even though it was not the season for figs, as Mark notes), and then curses it. Then the story quickly moves to Jesus getting angry in the temple.
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree,“May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’‘? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
The temple story seems to make sense. People were setting up businesses and ripping people off in a place that was meant was for true worship and prayer. The worship and events that took place in that temple were a far cry from what Jesus believed should have been happening. But what in the world was up with that whole ordeal with the fig tree? It seems so random, unnecessary, strange. But the story doesn’t end there. But before looking ahead what conclusions could been drawn? It’s got to be related to Jesus’ actions in the temple somehow, right?
I’m going to include the rest of the sandwich even though it happens the next morning.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly, I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
So in the morning they’re walking along and they come across the fig tree again. Only this time, the tree is withered from the roots. Peter recognizes the tree and remembers what happened the day before. And then we get a very interesting, and perhaps a bit confusing, lesson and conclusion from Jesus.
But this is the bottom half of Mark’s sandwich. And he’s written this story the way he did with a purpose.
Ok, this is what I think is going on:
Jesus is hungry. He wants something to eat. He sees a fig tree from afar and it has leaves on it. I’m no expert on trees, but from what I have been told about fig trees, if a fig tree had leaves showing it often would have fruit, because figs generally grow before the leaves appear and often have multiple crops. It was a bit early in the season for a fig tree to have fruit, but since it had leaves it wasn’t crazy for them to expect it to have figs.
Ok, so that deals with the question of why Jesus would be mad that there weren’t figs in the tree even when it wasn’t in season. But why does he curse it? It seems to be a bit of an overreaction. I guess Jesus must have been really hungry. No. That’s not really what I think is going on. I think Mark wants us to hold onto this story and the questions is raises. That’s why he tells the story the way he does.
Jesus then goes into the temple. He had quickly visited the temple courts the night before and looked around. But it was late, and even though he was probably mad by the things he saw, he didn’t want to get into it then. But I bet he stewed on it that evening, though. He had gone from being praised as king to going to the temple and seeing merchants scamming people within the temple courts before Passover.
When Jesus came back into the temple, he didn’t just wander around and look at the people. He was angry. He walked in and started driving people from their merchant tables. Both those selling and those buying. He overturned tables, flipped over the benches of those selling doves. He stopped people from carrying merchandise around. He was mad. But then he began teaching them. I wish we had everything he said, because I don’t know how you go from flipping over tables to teaching or preaching, but I have a feeling he wasn’t sitting down and perfectly calm as he taught. I’m sure his voice was raised and he was very stern.
Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’‘? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’
I feel like this is the statement that everyone remembered. It’s the quote that everyone remembers the next day. Like everyone is hearing him teach and he drops that line and half the people are like, “Oooooh, snap!” and the other half just get really mad because he’s talking about them. (Kind of reminds me of Obama during the 2015 State of the Union address when he came back with that witty quip after Republicans clapped after he said he had run his last campaign).
Anyway, Jesus was not happy with Israel’s empty worship and their scamming shortcuts to religious rituals. He let them know about it. And this event is commonly referred to as Jesus cleansing the temple.
The next morning they pass that fig tree again and Peter is shocked to see it dead already. In his defense, that would be shocking. Also, I’m pretty sure this is the only time Jesus does something supernatural in a destructive way. (Let me know if I’m incorrect in this in the comments). But that makes it stand out to the disciples and probably should to the reader as well. So what’s up with it?
This is not the only time a fig tree is mentioned in Scripture. And a fig tree is sometimes symbolic for the nation of Israel. Here it would make sense for that to be the case in this context. A fruitful fig tree would be representative of a blessing and prosperity, and a fruitless fig tree, and especially one that is cursed and withered, would be representative of judgment and rejection.
As Jesus publicly condemned Israel’s worship in the temple, he symbolically condemned the nation of Israel through the cursing of the fig tree.
And this is how we see the two stories come together. It takes a bit of investigation, but it’s all quite reasonable (and fun). But then we have Jesus’ response to Peter and the disciples. There’s a lot going on in this short passage and it sounds very promising at first, and a bit scary by the end. He says,
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly, I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Because this is not a perfectly clear passage and it is the conclusion to Mark’s sandwich, I am confident that I am going to miss a lot of what is meant in this passage. At face value it seems to promote a prosperity gospel message. If you pray to God you can get whatever you want as long as you believe hard enough. If this were the only passage in the Bible that dealt with prayer, then maybe one could conclude that (but find their prayer life extremely frustrating), but I am very confident there is much more going on here than simply thinking we can just pray and get whatever we want. What would that have to do with all that just happened with the fig tree and the temple?
There are probably all sorts of interpretations, but I think that taking this passage in context is probably pretty important. This is how I understand it:
Jesus is not talking about any mountain. He’s talking about the mountain that the temple is located on. It stood in opposition to the kingdom that Jesus was ushering into this world. The fig tree was symbolic of Israel, and stood in opposition to Jesus and to the true worship of God. He cursed the fig tree and he cleansed the temple. He was throwing that mountain into the depths of the sea. We too, when things stand in the way of true worship of God or the purposes of his kingdom in this world, can command such things to be thrown into the depths of the ocean. Our faith must be in God and his kingdom. There may be opposition to Jesus and his ways on this earth, but don’t doubt. Have faith in God and those mountains will be removed, but that doesn’t mean things are always going to be easy. By the end of the week Jesus would be crucified on that mountain. (Perhaps another hidden irony in the passion narrative?) Surely there is a lesson in that as well. (Like I said…this passage is probably rich in meaning and depth. Just a few years after Mark wrote this book the temple was destroyed, so there may be hints of prophecy that I am missing, too.)
There is probably much more to be said and drawn from this passage, but that’s just a basic interpretation.
And now we come to the last verse:
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
Of course this is part of Jesus’ teaching we were just looking at, but I think this verse stands out. Forgiveness is central to understanding the Christian faith, and so I think this is an important verse that should not be overlooked.
It is more important to make sure that we are at peace with others, that we have forgiven others for anything and everything, than it is for us to worship God if harboring any unforgiveness in our hearts. To ask for, or even expect God’s forgiveness while harboring unforgiveness is a slap in the face to God. How can we ask God to do something for us that we are not willing to do for others? That mimics the faulty and hypocritical worship of the Jews that Jesus was condemning. If we want God to forgive us, then we should forgive others. It’s an act of faith. It’s an emulation of God’s greatest gift to us.