Jesus Cleanses the Temple, Again (Day 35)
It’s the morning after Palm Sunday. If Sunday’s Peace Parade takes aim at subverting the Roman procession of power across town, today’s symbolic action puts the Temple powers in its sights. This day after the “Triumphal” Entry is the day for “cleansing” the Temple. And for cursing a fig tree.
Mark, importantly, serves up this temple-cleansing as a literary sandwich. The meat of this sandwich is Jesus’ visit to the Temple. The enclosing layers are two halves of the fig tree cursing. Leaving the fruitless fig tree behind, Jesus and his friends head to Jerusalem and enter the Temple courtyard. Jesus’ mood hasn’t improved since cursing the tree, and when he takes in the flurry of religious activity, he enacts his most celebrated symbolic-action protest. Turning over business tables and scattering sacrificial animals and their buyers and sellers, Jesus “teaches” (Mark’s word): “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for bandits” (11:17).
The next morning, they return to the fig tree, and it’s completely withered up. Peter points it out, and Jesus replies, “Have faith in God! I assure you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea’—and doesn’t waver but believes that what is said will really happen—it will happen’” (11:22-23).
Taken as a sandwich, the fig tree is the Temple, or the entire operation of Jerusalem, really. And it’s not bearing fruit—it’s not even the kairos, the age, for this system to be fruitful anymore—and Jesus protests (curses!) the whole thing. Then, when Jesus later instructs his disciples on the lesson of the withered fig tree, they are within view of the Temple Mount, the heart of Jerusalem. You, too, he teaches, with faithful prayer and a forgiving spirit (lest we forget) can throw mountainous, fruitless, broken systems into the sea.
This year, having spent five weeks blogging through a book celebrating liturgies, both ordinary and formal, I hear Jesus’ impatience with fruitless religion as a cautionary note. Worship, rituals, practices—beware the fruitless kind. Beware the sort that are more akin to a consumer marketplace than a house of prayer for all people.
Later this week, we enter 4 Days with Jesus, the most meaning-packed ritual in our congregation’s liturgical rhythm. It’s a significant investment of time and energy for both planners and participants. (When else do you attend church five times in less than four days?) A question that lurks just beneath the surface is, “Does this ritual bear fruit?” Or another, “Will the ‘specialness’ wear off after eight years of repetition?”
The caution duly noted, I come back to the conviction with which our author Tish framed her book:
[T]o be an alternative people [> ecclesia> , church] is to be formed differently—to take up practices and habits that aim our love and desire toward God” (30).
Eight years does indeed a habit make. And while what we “feel” and “experience” will surely vary from year to year, we trust—in the deepest parts of our being—that through this yearly rehearsal of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Spirit keeps on forming “our love and desire toward God.”
“What kind of people is our liturgy forming us to be?”
I can speak for this team of pastors. We hope we’re being formed as this kind of people:
A people whose LOVE takes the shape of wide embrace
A people whose POWER takes the shape of a cross,
A people whose FAITH takes the shape less like triumphant (over)confidence and more like the words, “Hold On.”
See you Thursday. And Friday. And Sabbath. And Sunday.