After arriving in Jerusalem in a grand-yet-understated, donkey-led procession, Jesus looks around the city a bit and returns with his disciples to Bethany, a small town on the outskirts of the great city. The next morning, according to Mark’s account, they make their way back up towards Jerusalem.
Now Mark tells two stories, each of which on their own offers an innocent-enough interpretation. But taken together these two stories cut to the core of Jesus’ mission in his final days.
First, Jesus curses a fig tree. It rather rolls off the tongue because it’s familiar, but read that again: Jesus curses a fig tree. Because the tree didn’t have any fruit. In springtime. Mark makes it clear that it wasn’t even the season (that’s kairos, by the way) for figs yet. But Jesus was hungry—maybe “hangry”—and disappointed, so he curses the tree: “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” (Mark 11:14).
Several verses later, Jesus has left the city again with his disciples. 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 on its own, this exchange is oft offered to readers as Jesus’ prescription for wonder-working. You, too, if you’re mad at a fig tree, with enough faith, can curse it. Or, if you want to move a mountain badly enough, you could do that, as well. Just pray, and have faith—enough faith, the right kind of faith.
But in Mark’s hands, this story doesn’t stand alone. It’s been split open by another story, which means Mark is serving up a literary sandwich. We need to hear the outer pieces together with what’s in the middle.
The meat of Mark’s sandwich is Jesus’ visit to the Temple. Leaving the disappointing fig tree behind (before they’ve seen it wither), Jesus and friends head to Jerusalem and enter the Temple courtyard. Famously, 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 safe (and isolated) reading of this story interprets Jesus’ actions as a pious defense of the sanctity of the Temple space. (“Walk softly in the sanctuary . . .”) In this reading, the problem is that prayer space has been invaded by noisy secular economic activity. If the sellers will take their business elsewhere, the problem will be solved, so Jesus chases them out. He cleanses the Temple.
Fine . . . sort of. Except these two stories belong together. In Mark’s literary 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.
It’s a bit too easy, perhaps, to point to broken religious systems as the object of Jesus’ protest. N.T. Wright helps by pushing us to go broader:
Jesus’ protest was far deeper, and if we applied it today it wouldn’t just be the churches that ought to tremble, but the lawcourts and legislative assemblies, the royal palaces and banking centres, the places where power is so often wielded to the benefit of the already powerful and the downtreading of the already powerless.[^1]
“My house,” Jesus thunders, reaching back to the prophet Isaiah, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Oh, I’m sure there’s politics aplenty to unpack there. But here is where my mind goes at the beginning of the busiest week of the entire year at our church (alongside Vacation Bible School, of course).
Will this busyness bear fruit?
Will our gatherings over Four Days and our worship—will they be good news for any and all who are hungry?
Will our programming somehow bring into view the Jesus who empowers the powerless and gives voice to the voiceless?
Will we, the gathered disciples of Jesus, be a sacred sanctuary for all peoples?
Will we, above all else, put on display, like Jesus, a God who is generous beyond measure, a God whose embrace knows no bounds?
It seems a tall (mountainous) order, doesn’t it?
Which is just the sort of thing Jesus said disciples can do through faithful prayer and a Spirit of forgiveness. Thanks be to God.
[^1]: Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 153.