Here is a short list of people whom Jesus is going to offend today:
- 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.