May 20, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Day of Pentecost
Jesus Condemns the Temple
The other day, I came across a list of pop song titles for us aging Baby Boomers. Now some of you, under the age of forty probably won’t recognize any of these songs, so ask a Boomer near you. Here are some famous songs from the 1960s and 1970s for the chronologically challenged.
First there’s Herman’s Hermits singing, “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Walker.” Next, hear the aging Beatles Paul and Ringo singing, “I Get by with a Little Help from Depends.” Don’t miss the Bee Gees singing, “How Can You Mend a Broken Hip?” And you’ve got to hear Paul Simon singing, “50 Ways to Lose Your Liver.” And the Scandinavian group ABBA will have us rocking out to their new song, “Denture Queen.” And finally, Jerry Lee Lewis, who is 80 years old, has a new song entitled, “A Whole Lot of Aching Going On!”
Now these song titles might be for those of us who are getting older, but the stories of Jesus never get old. Last week, we read about Jesus moving through the city of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. With his giving sight to blind Bartimaeus and raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was known far and wide for his miraculous healings and his supernatural power. He had a great following, from those who saw him as the promised Messiah to those who saw him as a danger to the chief priests and scribes.
As our scripture opens, Jesus is leaving the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany and is on his way to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Believe it or not, these stories of the withered fig tree and the cleansing of the Temple actually do become one story of Jesus’ disappointment in the course the Jews have taken in honoring God. More about this in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?
The verse right before this story, verse 11 of Chapter 11 says this: “And Jesus entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; and when he had looked round at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” The object of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is the Temple. The evening before our scripture opens, Jesus has already been to the temple and has seen the activities that are taking place there. The Temple has become the object of his judgment and an ominous sign of things to come.
And so, as Jesus and the disciples are leaving Bethany in the morning, Jesus comes upon a fig tree in leaf. He approaches it in the hope of picking some of its fruit to eat. Now this is where the story is no longer literal but becomes a parable symbolizing something greater that Jesus wants to teach his disciples.
Since this is the Passover season, it is probably the middle of April. A fig tree might bear leaves as early as March, but never did a fig tree bear figs until late May or June. Mark even says it is not the season for figs. I’m sure Jesus would have know this. But Jesus becomes angry that there is no fruit and the tree bears his wrath. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
So, what does all this mean? The fig tree was a standard symbol for Israel. Hosea 9:10 says this: “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.” Or Jeremiah 8:13 says this: “I will take away their harvest,” declares the Lord. “There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither. What I have given them will be taken from them.” Or in Jeremiah 29:17 when God was upset with the king sitting on David’s throne, he says, “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like poor figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.”
Jesus had wept over Jerusalem. He now sees Jerusalem like he sees the fig tree. It has luxuriant foliage but bears no fruit. Instead, Israel is a barren fig tree, and the leaves only cover its nakedness. The magnificence of the Temple and its ceremonies hides the fact that Israel has not brought forth the fruit of righteousness demanded by God.
The fig tree is meant to be a visual parable to Israel, and later to us, the Church. Just because we look good, because our leaves are large and shiny, does not mean that we are bearing fruit pleasing to God.
Jesus is condemning a promise without fulfillment. All of Israel throughout its history has prepared for the coming of God’s chosen one. The whole promise of their national record was that when the chosen one came they would be eager to receive him. But when he did come, that promise was tragically unfulfilled.
Jesus is also condemning a profession without practice. Throughout the New Testament Christians are touted as being known by the fruits of their lives. Matthew 7:16 says, “You will know them by their fruits.” Luke 3:8 says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Israel and many times we today, are not very useful people when our religion does not make us better and more useful to people, does not make our homes happier, and when it does not make life better and easier for those with whom we come in contact. If we are followers of Jesus, then we must bear fruit.
The nation of Israel should have been producing fruit for God, but they were all religion, and no life. And so, Jesus’ disciples hear all of this from him as he curses the fig tree.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus approaches the Temple. Dr. Kent Hughes, in his commentary on Mark, describes it this way. “Jesus could see the cream of her marble walls and the gleaming gold of her pillars’ capitals illuminated by the morning sun. Huge Passover crowds were already flowing up the steps to the great Court of the Gentiles – a walled, marble-paved area adjacent to the south side of the Temple, the length of three football fields and some 250 yards wide. Great throngs surged against the tables of the money changers.”
Now you have to understand why Jesus became so very angry upon entering the Court of the Gentiles. The Court of the Gentiles was the outermost court of the Temple. It was a place where Jew and Gentile alike could come to pray. Over the years, however, the court had become almost entirely secularized. It had been meant to be a place of prayer and preparation before entering the Temple proper, but there was in the time of Jesus a commercialized atmosphere of buying and selling which made prayer and meditation impossible. There were huge crowds lined around the stalls selling livestock, fowl, wine, and salt for the sacrifices. The noise was deafening. Merchants shouted from their stalls to the customers, and noisy, haggling, pushy pilgrims jostled one another for position. There was the constant bawling of livestock and their aroma filled the air and made it more like a county fair and the stock exchange all rolled into one, instead of a place of prayer.
But what made Jesus most angry was the exploitation of the pilgrims. Exodus 30:13-16 commanded that every male Jew over the age of twenty had to pay a temple tax of one half-shekel a year. That was equivalent to nearly two days’ wages for a working man. The tax, however, could not be paid in foreign money which usually had idolatrous images on the coins.
So, everyone had to exchange their money for shekels of the sanctuary. When the pilgrims went to have their money exchanged they had to pay a fee, and should their coin exceed the tax, they had to pay another fee before they received their change. This extra fee amounted to another half day’s wages. It as a great deal of money.
Also, doves were widely used as a sacrifice in the Temple. The doves had to be without blemish to be used as a sacrifice. Doves could be bought cheaply enough outside, but the Temple inspectors would be sure to find something wrong with them, and worshippers were advised to buy them at the Temple stalls. The price of a pair of doves inside the Temple could be as much as fifteen times the price that might be paid outside. The sellers of doves were basically extorting the pilgrims for something they had to do by law. And the worse thing about all of this is that the business of buying and selling belonged to the family of Annas, who was the high priest.
Instead of the Temple being a house of prayer, they had made it “a den of robbers.” The temple is judged and destroyed by Jesus because it had failed to fulfill the purpose of God. The high priest’s family had perverted Temple worship into a means of extortion well-known to all the pilgrims. But the real shame of this spiritual robbery was that Gentiles, and indeed all seeking Israel, were being perverted from true worship!
Now you can understand why Jesus is so angry. Our scripture says, “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.” You see, people were also using the Court of the Gentiles as a short cut to get from one part of the city to another. Jesus reminded them of their own law about this from the Mishnah, which says, “A man may not enter into the Temple mount with his staff or his sandal or his wallet, or with the dust upon his feet, nor may he make of it a short by-path.”
So why did Jesus become to angry? Why did he strike out in defense of the holiness of God the Father? First, because he was angry at the exploitation of the pilgrims. The Temple authorities were treating them not as worshippers, not even as human beings, but as things to be exploited for their own ends. The exploitation of one human being by another always provokes the wrath of God and even more so under the cloak of religion.
Second, Jesus was angry because of the desecration of God’s holy place. The sense of the presence of God in the house of God had been lost. Commercialization of the sacred was violating it.
And lastly, Jesus was moved to anger because of the exclusiveness of Jewish worship. He wanted to remind the Jews that God loved not just the Jews but the world. “My house will be called a house of prayer for ALL nations.” God’s house is to be a holy and clean house. God cannot abide with the presence of sin. The Court of the Gentiles had become a place of unholiness and sinfulness.
There is the story of a couple of college guys who lived in a dirty dorm room. They were the keepers of the school’s mascot, a goat. They asked the dean if they could move the goat into their dorm room during cold weather. The dean asked, “Well, what about the smell?” The college guys said, “Oh, he’ll just get used to it.” College guys might live in a dirty room, but God won’t.
Whether it is a tree that doesn’t produce fruit, or God’s house that is not kept holy, God will pass judgment. And the wrath of God is not to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, the chief priests and teachers of the law wanted to keep the status quo. In fact, there were afraid of Jesus, because his teaching was the truth and captured the hearts of the people. And so they began to look for a way to kill Jesus. Tragically, we know how this story ends. The religious establishment and the people came to reject Jesus, nailing him to the Cross at the end of that very week, and thus sealing their fate as a nation.
Folks, there is a lesson for us in all of this. We are to bear fruit and we are to become more holy like Jesus is holy. And what is the fruit we are to bear? It is the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Is your life and my life an invitation to meet a holy God, to keep his house a house of prayer, and to bear fruit that others might want a taste?