12 The next day when they came out from Bethany, He was hungry. 13 After seeing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, He went to find out if there was anything on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again! ” And His disciples heard it. 15 They came to Jerusalem, and He went into the temple complex and began to throw out those buying and selling in the temple. He overturned the money changers’ tables and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple complex. 17 Then He began to teach them: “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves!” 18 Then the chief priests and the scribes heard it and started looking for a way to destroy Him. For they were afraid of Him, because the whole crowd was astonished by His teaching. 19 And whenever evening came, they would go out of the city. 20 Early in the morning, as they were passing by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that You cursed is withered.” 22 Jesus replied to them, “Have faith in God. 23 I assure you: If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, all the things you pray and ask for—believe that you have received them, and you will have them. 25 And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your wrongdoing. 26 But if you don’t forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your wrongdoing.” — Mark 11:12-26
The Fig Tree
by Ridley Barron
What do a cursed fig tree and a corrupt marketplace at the temple in Jerusalem have in common with faith and prayer? Our passage today asks us to deal with that very question. Why would Jesus curse a fig tree with no figs when it wasn’t the time for figs to bloom? Why would Jesus become angry and display righteous indignation at those selling and buying in the temple? Like many of you, I have heard this story referred to as the “cleansing of the temple” for many years.
Today, I’d like to offer an alternate and (I believe) more plausible explanation. Let me start by asking the logical question I always seemed to miss: “Why would Jesus go to the trouble of cleansing a temple that He Himself predicted would be destroyed in a very short time?”
I believe Jesus’ intent was not to cleanse the temple, but to bring about the destruction of a system and a place that had become so corrupt it no longer represented what it had been created for. This is why Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7, where God says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Rather than fulfilling this role, the temple and the religious system that had developed around it created barriers for those of other races and cultures and also established a hierarchy by which people were being oppressed. The temple was missing the mark.
Jesus called the temple a “den of robbers,” but He wasn’t talking about the corruption or ethics of those who sold and traded in the courtyard. Looking at Jeremiah 7:9-11 to see the context of the original quote, we find exactly what He meant. The temple had become a place for men who lived as they wanted to daily, but then came to the temple to “get a pardon” for their actions. In essence, they were thieves and murderers and oppressors and liars who would live detestable lives, but who would come back to the temple as if it were a den created for their safety.
God tells Jeremiah in 7:11, “I have been watching you!” In Mark 11 we see Jesus’ arrival as an announcement that God is still watching. And because He knows what has become of His temple and His people, He will bring this old, antiquated system to an end and initiate a far more effective ransom for the world—the giving of His Son on their behalf.
Perhaps this is why Jesus’ instruction to the disciples at the end of the passage is about faith and prayer, not ritual and sacrifice. It is as if Jesus has used His actions (the cursing of a tree and His outrage in the temple) to say, “There is little difference between fruitless trees and prayerless temples.” He has little use for either. If our relationship with God is now based on faith-filled prayers and asking for forgiveness, then a religious system that oppresses outsiders and is laden with performance no longer serves a purpose.
This leads us (Christians and the Church) to do some serious soul-searching about the systems we treat as sacred and the rituals we hold on to tightly. Do they still honor God, or have we created a hierarchy by which we can “rank ourselves?” Does our faith keep outsiders at distance and treat insiders as some form of elite believers?
Or do our actions open up Christianity to ALL who will come? Do we invite the world to know Jesus by what we do in the practicing of our faith, or has our system created the very barriers Jesus came to destroy? Tough questions. Necessary questions…lest we become as fruitless as a fig tree and faithless as a religious system centered on performance.
- What are some things you hold on to as sacred?
- Have you become accustomed to certain “traditions” in your faith that may keep others at a distance from Jesus?
- Do your prayers demonstrate a faith in Jesus or a confidence based on your performance?
- What are some things you can do to “open up” the gospel to other races and cultures around you?
- How you can pray specifically so others may come to connect with Jesus?
- What are some traditions, rituals or practices that you or your church may need to examine because their time or season has passed?
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.