08 April 2009

A Temple Tantrum

A Temple Tantrum

Mark 11: 1-25

Palm Sunday/ 5th April 2009

Our liturgical calendar calls today “Palm Sunday” and so we turn to various accounts of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem. This year we’re in Mark’s gospel. This morning I want to stay particularly close to the text, trying to unpack what’s here, trying to open up this familiar story to show what Mark is trying to say. For, the gospel accounts are not all the same. Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John each have a different angle. Did you notice that Mark doesn’t even mention the word “palms;” instead his eyewitnesses “spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.” In Mark, Jesus is riding on only a colt (not a donkey), unlike in Matthew where he’s appears to be straddling both a colt and donkey. In Luke and Matthew, Jesus goes straight to the temple and overturns the tables of the money-changers. In Mark, Jesus’ temple tantrum, as it were, occurs not on that Sunday, but on Monday and for John it comes very early in his gospel, in the second chapter (2: 13-22) and depicts Jesus’ wielding a whip.

Mark’s account is bizarre. He paints a grand procession; the crowds are shouting and waving as Jesus enters the City of Shalom. Jesus makes his way up to the massive Temple Mount (the size of five football fields) built by Herod the Great (73-4 BC), then he goes into the Temple (built by Solomon), and, then Mark tells us, “when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany to the twelve.” What was Jesus looking for? It’s as if he was checking out the location before something could take place. It’s obviously too late in the day for whatever it was. Late for what? So, Jesus leaves. It’s kind of anti-climatic, isn’t it? Indeed, nothing seems to happen. The procession just seems to fizzle out and everyone goes home. That’s how Mark describes it.

But do you know what Mark has in common with the other three gospel writers? They all have the crowds shouting the same text: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” It’s lifted from Psalm 118: 24-26. Actually – a little Bible trivia here – Psalm 118 is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, for both the gospel and epistle writers. Not Psalm 23, not 100, or 121 or 139. It’s this psalm. The crowds voice these verses, lauding, celebrating Jesus as a conquering hero who is bringing salvation to the city (not knowing that he is about to be killed). We have to remember this as we read this text. We know what happens, the crowd didn’t. It’s like watching those black and white film clippings from November, 1963, in Dallas, watching President and Mrs. Kennedy in the convertible, waving at the crowd. We’ve seen those images so many times, we know what is about to occur and we cringe. Similarly, the crowd is waving at Jesus, but they don’t realize what is about to happen. They’re making him into the hero they want him to be. But it’s not the triumphant entry that will bring God’s salvation to the people.

It’s easy to miss the use of irony here in drawing from Psalm 118. We really need to have the rest of the psalm memorize; as a good Jew you would have it memorized. If you start at verse 20, listen to what it says, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The image of the “rejected stone” was often used to describe Jesus. There’s more than a subtle hint here that these same people will be rejecting this same Jesus in no time.

This isn’t a triumphal entry for Mark. Neither can we allow it to be a pre-Easter Easter celebration.[1] It’s a warning: do not mold Jesus into your image of what a savior can or cannot do. Jesus will not be defined by the crowd or the city of Jerusalem or the Temple or the Jewish authorities or the Roman authorities or even, later, by the church. There is also another warning here which we’ll get to in a minute.

So what is Jesus up to here? What will have to wait until Monday morning? The next morning we’re told Jesus was hungry, saw a fig tree off in the distance, but found no fruit on it, so he cursed it for all the disciples to hear. Then on Tuesday morning, we’re told they passed that same fig tree, but now the tree had “withered away to its roots.” Jesus uses that as the occasion to preach, “Have faith in God,” and he instructs them how to pray and how to forgive. And then wedged right between these two obscure, even odd encounters with a fig tree we find Jesus’ demonstration in the temple, on Monday morning. And it was a demonstration. What was Jesus trying to show, to say? Nothing is in Mark’s gospel by mistake; we have to pay attention to every detail. Why does Mark, then, frame it this way? What does it all mean?

What we need to know here is something most of us don’t know and would have no reason to know, although the text gives us a clue. The time of Passover, early spring, is not the time for fig trees to bear fruit. It’s not the season for figs. Mark’s audience would have known that, which means we shouldn’t take this literally or as being historically true. It’s meant to be a symbol. If it was true, then it would certainly be an example of Jesus abusing divine power. This magic-story is a metaphor. But why would Jesus curse a tree when he knew it wasn’t the season for figs?

If we were raised in Israel we would have known what the reference to figs meant. The fig tree in Israel’s history was very significant. It was the emblem of peace, security, and prosperity – it’s there in Genesis (3:7), the Exodus, the Wilderness experience, the Promised Land, the reign of Solomon and Simon Maccabaeus, and the coming Messianic age. It’s featured prominently in the prophetic books. A blossoming fig tree represents Yahweh’s blessing, a withering fig tree points to Yahweh’s judgment. The fig was also associated with the Temple and even with the nation of Israel. “By placing the story…in the context of Jesus’ visit to the Temple, Mark has dramatically indicated that the expected fruitfulness associated with that institution” was not to be found. “Its destiny is rather to be withered, and that – ek rhizon [to the roots]!” [2]

Judging the fig tree because it’s not bearing fruit is a way to symbolically say what Jesus was doing when he got to the Temple – judging it, indeed shutting it down completely – because it’s not bearing fruit. This is the second warning. The fig tree is a symbol of the Temple. Jesus wants the Temple to bear fruit and it’s not.

Why is the Temple being judged? We have to be careful how we answer this because a lot of damage has been done over the centuries by Christians who have missed the point altogether. Jesus is not against Judaism. Jesus was Jewish and remained a Jew his entire life. It’s questionable whether Jesus ever really intended the formation of a new religion or for the church to become a substitute for Israel. We have to speak with care about “cleansing” the Temple. Some scholars argue it’s not a cleaning. The animal sacrifices that went on in the Temple were appropriate.[3]

Why is the Temple being judged? It’s there in vs. 17: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And who are the robbers? The Temple high priests who had become collaborators with the Roman Imperial occupation. The Roman Imperial garrison was built just beside the Temple, with high towers so they could look down into the Temple precincts and over all of Jerusalem. The Jewish high priest was Rome’s primary local collaborator. The temple was both the house of Yahweh and the institutional seat of submission to Rome. The Roman Imperial eagle was placed over the entrance to the Temple. Was the temple the house of Jupiter – the supreme deity in the Roman pantheon and protector of Rome – or of Yahweh? Jupiter or Yahweh?

What is more, the worship of Yahweh always includes justice for the people. Worship and justice go hand-in-hand for Yahweh and can never – ever! – even today. At the hands of the Romans, untold suffering and injustice were inflicted upon Palestine and the temple authorities, especially the high priest – who was personally appointed by Rome – did little to stop it.

Jesus then quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah who spoke for Yahweh and said this of the temple. Listen: “If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly with one another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever….Has this house, which is called by name, become a den of robbers in your sight? (Jeremiah 7:5-7, 11).

These two fig tree encounters serve as a frame and inside the frame is Jesus in the temple account. The temple is not the place where the robbery occurs, but the place the robbers go for refuge, the place robbers hide for having done their robbing elsewhere.[4] This means that the purpose of the Temple was being subverted. Sure, the religious practices were ongoing – prayer and sacrifice – but the religious function of the Temple was masking the gross injustices going on in full view of the religious authorities collaborating with Rome. So Jesus took it on, just like God did through the voice of Jeremiah. God still takes it on; Jesus takes it on and the judgment remains – whether it’s the temple, synagogue, or the church. “God is a God of justice and righteousness and when worship substitutes for justice, God rejects God’s temple – or, for us today, God’s church.”[5]

That’s what Jesus set out to do in Jerusalem – and it’s what gets him killed at the hands of both the religious and political authorities. Jesus hungered for figs. But the figs were out of season. Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple vividly shows us what Jesus hungers for, not only from the Temple, but from the church – that we be fruitful: worship has to be linked with justice. We see God’s wrath and Jesus’ anger when our piety, our worship stands in the way of justice. Jesus hungers for the fruit of our faith which should never be out of season. The fruit of our faith is justice - not retributive justice (getting even), but restorative justice, correcting the inequities in the world, being agents of peace, caring for everyone who is alien to us, caring for the orphan, the widow, alleviating the burdens of the oppressed. This is a fruit that should never be out of season. Worship without pursuing these ends is empty and withers our souls down to their roots – ek rhizon. The rejection of Jesus was humanity’s ultimate rejection of God’s desire that worship be linked with justice.

In a few moments we will commission our Vision Task Force to lead us in a holy conversation, to help us discern God’s vision for this congregation. The temple in Jerusalem was built to be a holy dwelling place for God. By the time the church was formed it became clear that Jesus had become that temple, God dwelling fully in him, and that, in time the church was formed, so that we, too, might be formed into a community, a unique group of people that embodies God’s presence and hope for the world, where worship is linked with justice. In the life of the church it is Christ Jesus who is our chief cornerstone, the foundation upon which the church is built. “In him,” Paul wrote, “the whole structure” of this community “is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built spirituality into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2: 19-22)” That’s what Jesus continues to hung for in the church – every church, in this church – that we more and more be formed into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling place for God, a temple that bears fruit worthy of God. That’s what Jesus still hungers for.

[1] The point made by Fred Craddock, see Center for the Excellence in Preaching, www. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/viewArticle.php?aID=282

[2] W. Telford’s observation cited in Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 297-298.

[3] See Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 32-53. Throughout, I am indebted to their interpretation of Mark’s gospel.

[4] Borg & Crossan, 44.

[5] Borg & Crossan, 49.

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