Monthly Archives: November 2010
- Religious people
The guy never bothered to read Dale Carnegie’s book, did he?
It’s been a while since we’ve seen one of these “sandwich stories” that Mark includes in his account of Jesus’ life. He starts with Story A, then interrupts it with Story B, then concludes by finishing Story A. The interrupting story (Story B) helps you and me understand what is going on in Story A.
Here, Story A begins with Jesus walking to Jerusalem. Apparently, he missed his breakfast that morning, so he’s hungry. He sees a leafy fig tree in the distance, walks up to it, finds no figs to eat, and curses it. If that seems a little arbitrary and vindictive, Mark only makes the problem worse; he explains that the reason Jesus found no figs on the tree is that “it was not the season for figs.”
So what’s the deal here? Did Jesus wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?
We quickly find the answer when Mark shifts to Story B: the “cleansing” of the temple. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and begins clearing out all the salesmen and moneychangers who have set up shop in the Court of the Gentiles, which is where non-Jewish people can enter to pray to God. He also prevents people from using this Court as a shortcut when carrying things from one side of the city to the other. He thunders, “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.’” He’s quoting to them a couple of passages from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah 56:7, where God invites foreigners to worship him at the temple. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day are permitting salesmen to interfere with this purpose of the temple, just so they can make a quick buck. That’s one reason why Jesus is quoting the second passage of scripture. It’s from Jeremiah 7:11.
Now, in the context of Jeremiah 7, the Lord God was condemning the people of Israel for their unjust and idolatrous behavior. They were convinced that they were safe from punishment because they had the temple with them; they believed that their religious system would protect them from harm. They were viewing the temple the way criminals view their hideout. But the Lord threatened to destroy the temple as the holy city of Shiloh had been destroyed. And now Jesus is implying a similar threat to the religious leaders of his day, who think that their external religion will cover up the wickedness inside their hearts.
Needless to say, Jesus doesn’t make a lot of friends today. Mark tells us that “the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him.” Why? “They feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.” Jesus is speaking with divine authority, and it’s mesmerizing the people who hear it. Of course, the words of God always threaten those who rely on the power structures of this present world. If Jesus had come to modern-day America, we would have killed him, too.
Now, we get back to Story A and find out that the fig tree has withered. Aha! we realize. The fig tree symbolizes the temple establishment. Jesus is cursing those who are abusing the temple as a means to financial gain and as a religious hideout for their crooked hearts. Just as the fig tree has “withered away to its roots,” so the temple will be destroyed, so that “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).
But the temple was the place where God came down and lived with his people. If the temple and its crooked leaders are to be done away with, will Jesus’ disciples be cut off from God? No! Remember, the fig tree withered at Jesus’ words. God still has power and is still eager to hear the prayers of his people. “Have faith in God!” Jesus encourages them. “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”
Is Jesus giving us a blank check to get whatever we want when we pray? No, this is clearly contradicted by other biblical teaching (e.g. James 4:3). What Jesus is doing is using hyperbole to encourage you and me. He knows that it’s easy to think that God is far away and doesn’t care about us. Without a physical building like the massive Jerusalem temple, it’s hard to believe that God is near. So he reminds us that God is eager to do great things for us. Most amazing of all, he can forgive the sins you’ve committed against him—grievous though they are—as long as you are forgiving others (v 25). He is absolutely worth your trust.
You belong to one of two camps. Perhaps you are trusting in a religious system or some other man-made scheme to justify yourself before God. You think that it will protect you from his wrath. But he will curse your external religion and your self-righteousness. Your stubborn resistance against him will give him no choice but to destroy you.
Or perhaps you trust in God to protect you and to forgive you for your rebellion against him. Then you will find that he will do impossible things for you. He will bend heaven and earth to bring you close to him.
Or how about a blind beggar? Did you grow up with a smelly blind beggar as your hero? Me neither.
Maybe we should reconsider our heroes.
I know it’s been a little while since my last post on Mark 10:32–45, but do you remember how two of Jesus’ disciples (James and John) were behaving? They were gunning for high positions in the kingdom that they were sure Jesus was about to set up. They wanted to be great, to be looked upon highly by others. Jesus told them that true greatness requires you to serve and to suffer; Jesus himself, as the greatest of all, would serve and suffer more than any man who ever lived.
So now that Jesus has shot holes in our grandiose ideas of what it means to be his disciples, we find ourselves confronted with a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, huddled in the roadside dust outside the city of Jericho. Now, this is a guy who knows he has a problem and isn’t ashamed to admit it. He hears that Jesus is about to walk past him, surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. So Bartimaeus decides to make a nuisance of himself. He begins yelling, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now, when he calls Jesus the Son of David, Bartimaeus is identifying him as the promised Messiah, the coming King descended from David. This pathetic beggar has the audacity to request help from the glorious King. Members of the crowd are annoyed by his boldness and his endless racket, so they start shouting back at him to shut up. But Bartimaeus just gets louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus decides to put a stop to the commotion. He says, “Call him,” and it’s like a switch is flipped in the crowd; they’re all smiles toward Bartimaeus and encourage him to come over. They suddenly realize that Jesus values useless people like this blind man. Bartimaeus leaps up and comes to Jesus, who asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Now, remember how James and John replied when Jesus asked them the same question. They said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v 37). They wanted great things for themselves. What does Bartimaeus want? “Rabbi, let me recover my sight,” he says. That’s all. He just wants to see.
So Jesus says, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Bartimaeus can see again. He leaves Jericho behind and begins following Jesus on the uphill way to Jerusalem.
The contrast couldn’t be greater between Bartimaeus and Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, the Twelve. They are confident in their abilities (see vv 38–39); he knows he is helpless. They want a promotion from Jesus; he just wants mercy. They want power and status; he just wants to see. They want authority to “lord it over” other people (v 42); he wants his sight back so that he can follow Jesus’ lead.
It’s funny how a blind man can see who Jesus is and understand his mission, while Jesus’ own disciples are still in the dark.
If what Jesus said is true—that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v 45)—and if Jesus truly is the King of God’s kingdom, then this means that lowly people like Bartimaeus are the people who are most like Jesus. They’re the ones who have faith in Jesus, because they don’t have faith in themselves. They know they’re needy, so they place every ounce of trust on Jesus as the one who can rescue them from their helpless state.
So what are you trying to get out of Jesus?
Do you want him to turn you into a great person? Do you want him to fulfill your life dreams for you? At times, I catch myself wishing that I could become a very popular and influential pastor someday. What dreams of greatness do you wish that Jesus would grant?
Let’s shift our thinking. Instead of requesting greatness and self-actualization from Jesus, let’s just ask to see. Let’s start asking him to open our eyes, to see him as the Suffering Servant who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Let’s ask simply that we may know and understand him, so that we can follow him on the way. That’s all you and I need to be his disciples.