A friend on social media who, one day, I hope to be able to cultivate an in person friendship with, posted this with a call for thoughtful commentary and opinion, and there was a great deal of that. The answer to the question of whether or not this is valid protest largely will depend on what sort of Kingdom theology you have. Discussing that is interesting, but not really the reasons that I am writing about the incident. I am writing because in thinking on this, I could not help but notice several parallels between the account in Mark and our current setting. In the first 11 verses of Mark, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, observed it, and departed for Bethany. The text I want to discuss begins with Mark, chapter 11. All quotes used will be from the Jubilee Bible.
At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus sends out disciples to find a colt for Him to ride into Jerusalem. This is significant because riding the colt (donkey) into the gates, was symbolic of a King arriving in peace. We remember the familiar story. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd goes wild, and all is well for a day or two. We often forget a tidbit from verse 11 however. “And the Lord entered into Jerusalem and into the temple; and when he had looked around upon all things, and it being now late, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.” Jesus has gone to the temple, looked around, and departed with his disciples because it was late.
The next morning Jesus and the disciples are on the move again. Jesus is hungry, sees a fig tree, and approaches it to find fruit. The most common explanations of this incident make the attempt to claim that the first fruits would have been showing and Jesus fully expected to find fruit. Some of my favorites, such as Thomas Coke, make this argument. This passage takes place in March or April, while scripture indicates that there were three times of year that one could expect to find ripe figs, namely June, August, and December. The time of year does not match, hence the plain reading of the text “the time of figs was not yet.” I suggest rather that there was nothing at all wrong with the tree and it’s ability to produce fruit. Why then is the tree cursed? For this answer, we need to move on in the chapter. The next part of the story finds Jesus cleaning the temple (more on that later) and then leaving the city in the evening. The next morning, the group is on the move again, and passing the same fig tree, it is noticed that it has dried up from it’s roots (more on this later as well) and they proceed again to the temple.
In the Old Testament, the fig tree is used on more than one occasion to refer to the Jewish people as a nation. In the time of Jesus however, they are not a nation, they are under Roman rule. There is one place, and one place only, that remains under Jewish control, specifically the control of the religious leaders that Jesus repeatedly clashes with, and that is the Temple. If we combine what we know of fig trees from the Old Testament, and the reality of Jesus’ earthly time, then combine that with the frequent clashes of Jesus and the religious leaders, including one in this chapter, then the logical conclusion seems to be that the fig tree, in this particular instance, is representative of the temple.
Let me try to plug all of this in. There is nothing inherently wrong with the fig tree, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with the temple. Neither were producing fruit however, the tree because it was not time, and the temple because it had become corrupted by the priestly class. Jesus curses both. The tree withers from the ground up nearly instantly, and the second temple in about 70 AD. Jesus alludes to this when He references Jeremiah 7:11 and Isaiah 56:7. It was not the Jewish people who were cursed, nor was it their faith, but rather the temple, and those who controlled it, much as happened in the days of Solomon. In fact, when we examine the passage from Jeremiah a bit closer we find that the robbery therein was not monetary, but rather spiritual. The leaders that were condemned in the passage were guilty of oppressing foreigners, widows, orphans, etc. They were who oppressed the marginalized of their society. It had nothing to do with the buying of sacrificial animals or the changing of money to pay the temple tax, and the like. Nothing in Mark’s gospel indicates anything of that sort, and affirms that the thievery and robbery is robbing God of His true worship and robbing the people of God’s justice.
Another interesting aspect of this story was that the booths for the money changers and animals were set up in the court of the Gentiles. This was the only area that was permitted for the Gentiles to approach God, yet they were denied the ability because of the increased activity of Passover. The reference to Isaiah mentions of course the house for all the nations. The Gentile court being blocked would of course prevent the Temple from being a house of prayer for all the nations. Such a fundamental failure of the purpose of the Temple would be sure to anger Jesus. The flipping of the tables then was not a condemnation of the Jewish faith, but rather a way to make access for the Gentiles to God. This is of course one of the central messages of Christ, namely that all have access to The Father through The Son. Another interesting section of this passage is in verse 16. “and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.” No vessel, or burden carried through the Temple. Nothing. Including the sacrifice. Why is it that Jesus, The Christ, The Word Made Flesh, who never condemned the Jewish faith, not allow the sacrifice at Passover of all times? Simply because the sacrifice wasn’t to be made in the Temple, but on the cross in the coming days. The sacrifice need not be continued because it was about to be fulfilled. The blood of a lamb to be replaced forever by the blood of The Lamb. In Christ their is no Greek or Jew, and this instance provides just some of the back drop for the words that Paul would later write.
As we continue on, we find more about our fig tree in question as Jesus shifts to an object lesson on prayer and it’s effectiveness. In verse 23 we read: “For verily I say unto you that whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Remove thyself and cast thyself into the sea, and shall not doubt in his heart but shall believe that what he says shall be done whatsoever he says shall be done unto him.” There is only one possible mount that Christ can be referring to here, and that is indeed the Temple Mount. I will admit that it sounds near blasphemous at first, but in truth if the very Temple of God is immune to judgement, than any other power could be immune to judgement as well. Remember, the faith had not failed the people, the Temple and it’s leadership had. The Temple, by it’s opposition to God by denying the divinity of Christ, had become a power in opposition to God. The prayers of God’s people should always be that the things that oppose God be removed so that all may come to know Him. The statements in verses 23 and 24 are based on God promising to act Justly throughout all of history, not upon selfish desires that we all have.
Who do we deny access to? What systems do we support that oppress the poor and the marginalized? These questions need to be asked and examined so that they can be improved. We know that traffic violations, including fines levied, disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized. We know that the quality of education in public schools is drastically different, and most often it is the poor and marginalized who get the worst our education system has o offer. We know that there is a greater chance of a young black man being killed by police than a young white man. We know that access to services such as health care is much more difficult for the poor and the marginalized. When the Temple became a hindrance, Jesus flipped some tables (and more), so it should not surprise us that others might consider doing the same. It does not justify actions, but it makes them a bit easier to understand.
We need to ask tough questions of our churches. When we have a fund raising dinner that doubles as social time, do we exclude those who can not afford it? When we have Bible studies that require materials to participate in, do we exclude those who struggle? When we charge $136 for “Irenaeus on Creation: The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption” (ok, maybe this one is personal) do we price the poor out of the deep things of God? When we charge $70,000 to enter into ministry (average 4 year degree plus average seminary) do we price the poor out of vocationally preaching the Gospel? We, as the church, need to look at what we have set up in the court of the Gentiles and do our own table flipping in some instances perhaps.
In all of this, we need to be clear about a couple of things. Christ flipping the tables was not a call to violence or armed revolt, and there is nothing in Mark’s gospel that suggests that it is. There is no evidence that Jesus bore arms or encouraged his followers to do so in general (yes, I know the verses that some of you are thinking of and they do indicate there is a time and place for some to be armed potentially, but it is not a command to all, hence the in general). In shutting down the sacrificial system as it was, Jesus opposes the entrenched power of the Temple that rejects Him, thus that rejects God (and fulfills a whole lot of prophecy lest we forget). All through out Mark’s gospel, we see example after example of Jesus confronting individuals, but here we see Jesus in a different light confronting not individuals, but rather confronting those powers that stand in opposition to God. In doing this, He provides the road map for how we are to do so as well. We pray (verses 23-24), and then we forgive (verses 25-26). Jesus can, did, and will again, upset the power structures of the world. That is part of His job after all. The road map that He left us might include flipping a table or two should a House of God deny access to any who would come to her, but not a private business or personal property.