The job of a teenager, it need hardly be said, is to acquire and accumulate, but when I finally gained entrance, shoving the bedroom door against the wadded-up debris of old clothes, my eyes rolled, nose wrinkled and temper flared. All in that first nano-second. I handed a bin liner through the crack and walked away to cool down.
I couldn’t even see the floor. It wasn’t a bedroom, it was an explosion in an Oxfam shop.
In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus comes to the Temple, a not totally dissimilar reaction occurs.
Mark tells the story with characteristic subtlety, in two parts, each part explaining the other.
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.13 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. 14 Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard him say it.
15 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,16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 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.”]’
18 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.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!’
Do you see how the two stories are slotted together? What is the writer trying to tell us? Both can be misconstrued to show Jesus in a strange, almost vengeful light. But that misses the point completely.
First, the figs.
Now apparently even though it wasn’t the full season for figs, the trees generally produced crops of small edible buds in early March. So this tree looked promising but in the event did not deliver anything. It wasn’t going to fruit that year. And no breakfast for Jesus, either.
Jesus uses that tiny moment to show his disciples something much more serious -his frustration and disappointment with Israel.
Jesus had quickly visited the Temple the night before (see Mark 11 1-12) and he’s about to do so again, decisively. And the fig tree and the Temple are one connected point, as the setting out of the story shows. Jesus is saying this: God has come unto His own, expecting fruit, and has found none. Jesus’ disappointment with the fig tree is like his disappointment with Israel and temple, her chief shrine. His judgment pronounced upon the tree is like the threat of God’s judgment soon to fall upon the city of Jerusalem, which Jesus’ words and actions in Mk 11:15-19 prefigure.
It’s like an acted-out parable, a prophetic action, familiar to readers of the OT, in which a prophet demonstrates symbolically his message (look at Isa 20:1-6; Jer 13:1-11; 19:1-13; or Ezek 4:1-15 for other examples).
It’s not rash anger but a solemn prophetic word pronounced for the benefit of the disciples (and for the readers).
And so he enters the temple (Mk 11:15-16), and “drives out” the traders, overturning the tables of the money-changers. He makes the point “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ (Mk 11:17-18).
The local leaders are outraged and plan retaliation.
Again, there’s a bit of background we need to understand first. The “temple” was the court of the Gentiles, an outer court where non-Jews were permitted. Tables were set up to enable pilgrims to change their respective currencies into coins for the annual temple tax, as well as to purchase pigeons, lambs, oil, salt, etc., for various sin and thanksgiving sacrifices. (That’s from the ESV Study Bible).
So it was the Gentiles who suffered here. Their share in the worship of God was restricted by the noisy bartering of the traders catering to the Jews passing through.
But Jesus says: this is “for all nations.” This place is “for ALL nations” and not just Jews. How dare you clutter up the Gentiles place of prayer in this way?
Both the cursing of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple were prophetic sign acts that foretold the impending judgment upon the nation of Israel that would occur with the destruction of Jerusalem (fulfilled in 70 AD) – cf. Mk 13:1-2.
So there is, of course, that worrying thought, that God comes to us expecting fruit. If you are like me you may lack confidence that he will find anything but leaves.
But if this is the only lesson you read here, it may only breed self-condemnation and fear. I think that the Lord would teach us not to put restrictions on anyone seeking him. Make sure that the way is open and no “traders” have moved in. Be careful that your life, your home, your church, your family is an open door where any and all may come and find God.
Time to force that door open.
Take a bin-liner to all the rubbish.
And discover the carpet again