Journey to the Cross: Monday

[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.

Mark 11:12-19

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.

Mark 11:20-25.

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.

I have written a few other posts about forgiveness if you want to read them you can here and here.








A Pacifist’s Prayer on Memorial Day

Arlington Cemetary
Arlington cemetery – Photo by Andy Beal

Lord of Heaven and of Earth,

This morning I approach your throne room with a heavy heart.

I come to you in ANGER because people have died. People made in your image.
Thousands of families all across this earth have been affected by our wars against each other.
All people made in your image.
Families have been ripped apart. Dreams have been shattered.
Children who will never meet their daddies.

I pray for the families whose countries we are at war with. Men, women, children all of whom are made in your image. Civilians who have lost loved ones due to this violence and terrorism.

I come to you in LAMENT.

I plead, “How Long, O Lord?”

How long shall country rise against country?
How long shall leaders rise against leaders?
How long shall the men and women run off to battle?
How long shall bombs and terror destroy lives?
How long shall we live in fear of more violence?
How long shall wickedness, discord, and chaos rule?
How long shall we have to endure the evils of war?
How long, O Lord?

When will the swords be beaten into plowshares?
When will righteousness prevail on the earth?
When will justice and right judgment rule from on high?

May your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
Save us from ourselves. Deliver us from evil.

I come to you in CONFIDENCE because you are God.

Nothing goes unnoticed by you, Father.
And even in the midst of war, you, God, are a refuge and strength – a very present help in time of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

I come to you with HOPE because you are omnipotent.

You are in control. Even when we do not understand all that goes on in this world we can still remember our responsibility to trust in you. On this memorial day I lament the loss of life due to war, but I rest assured that you will bring comfort to those who have lost so much. And you will gladly quicken those who turn to you in humility and sincerity.

Help me to respond to evil in the ways in which you have commanded us.
Help me to pray for my enemies as well as those who I consider my friends.
Help me to love those who promote violence, war, and death in ways that are honoring to you.

Lord, forgive us our sins. For you are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from our unrighteousness.

Lord Jesus, come quickly!

How to pray for Japan

How to pray for Japan

This is from Don Wright of “Reaching Japanese for Christ”

There is an old adage that goes like this, “Well, I guess all that we can do is pray…” I approach prayer quite a bit dif­fer­ently and per­haps so should you. Prayer always comes first – before we can even attempt to do our “lit­tle bit” we should make sure that we have called in the “big guns”. I orig­i­nally wrote this prayer list for the earth­quake in Haiti. If it is help­ful in orga­niz­ing your thoughts feel free to join in and pray with me.

  1. Pray for those in need of res­cue that it will come swiftly.
    There are many who are in need of mir­a­cles. That teams would arrive an hour sooner, that dogs would catch a faint scent amidst the stench of death, that the right piece of con­crete would be moved. For all the train­ing and effort that the coura­geous res­cue teams put in, at this point they need mir­a­cles more than any­thing else.
  2. Pray for the res­cuers – safety, rest, encour­age­ment, in the midst of hor­ror and unre­lent­ing pain.
    The job that the res­cue teams face is com­pletely over­whelm­ing and they will fail many more times than they will suc­ceed. Res­cue teams suf­fer great per­sonal trauma and often become sui­ci­dal months after an event. Pray for these coura­geous men and women now and after they return.
  3. Pray for fam­i­lies that have wit­nessed the unthink­able, are wor­ried about loved ones, and fear­ful for their own safety.
    For every per­son who is miss­ing, dead or severely injured in the quake, there are ten more who care about them and find them­selves unable to do any­thing about it. Pray that emo­tional needs would receive atten­tion amidst all of the phys­i­cal needs.
  4. Pray for chil­dren who need com­fort and safety, hugs and reas­sur­ance – even if they are phys­i­cally “fine.”
    Chil­dren are the most vul­ner­a­ble amidst the after­math of a dis­as­ter. Every child whose world has been dis­rupted, seen the death of another per­son or lost friends or fam­ily is in need of emo­tional care, even if they have not suf­fered phys­i­cal harm themselves.
  5. Pray for gov­ern­ments and author­i­ties that all red tape would dis­ap­pear and cor­rup­tion would cease.
    Inter­na­tional relief efforts are often ham­pered by red tape and gov­ern­ments can find get­ting relief to local areas dif­fi­cult because of cor­rup­tion. Pray for aid to go unhin­dered to the peo­ple that need it most.
  6. Pray for relief agen­cies to have wis­dom and com­pas­sion to make a last­ing dif­fer­ence.
    The earth­quake is a great oppor­tu­nity to make for­ward progress. But long last­ing change will come through coura­geous and wise deci­sions that deal with the source of problems.
  7. Pray for those around you that they would respond not just with what they can do, but also with their heart.
    The temp­ta­tion that we all have is to give a small dona­tion and call it the best that we can do. We all have many rea­sons why we can­not give more. Pray that hearts would be moved and that peo­ple would be truly gen­er­ous. For those of us using social media like Face­book or Twit­ter, this means that we should get involved, make con­nec­tions and let it be personal.
  8. Pray for your­self that you would have a heart of com­pas­sion – start now and it will grow. A true heart of com­pas­sion is not just ready to give when the need arises. A true heart of com­pas­sion seeks out ways to help even when no one else notices that there is suf­fer­ing. A true heart of com­pas­sion will allow itself to continue car­ing long after the world has lost interest.
      Once you fin­ish pray­ing, ask your­self two ques­tions.


      • How can I become per­son­ally involved with help­ing the peo­ple?


      • How can I finan­cially sup­port some­one who is per­son­ally involved?

It is impor­tant in the early stages of a dis­as­ter to fill up the cof­fers of those orga­ni­za­tions that do res­cue and relief work. They will use that money to stay ready for the next dis­as­ter that comes. But in the age of Twit­ter and Face­book, find some­one who is giv­ing their time, energy and life to help those who are suf­fer­ing and give gen­er­ously or become that per­son and give your heart to those who need it most.