Today’s reading is Mark 11:12-17:
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.”
At first glance, it may seem that the fig tree has nothing to do with the Temple courts. Yet upon closer inspection we realize they are parallel tales that convey the same message. The fig tree, allegorically; the Temple courts, literally.
Let’s start with the fig tree. Why did Jesus curse a tree for not bearing fruit out of season? Was Jesus uncharacteristically annoyed at a small and insignificant nuisance? Biblical scholars propose an explanation. Since this was the Passover season, fig trees in Jerusalem would have sprouted taqsh, green knobs that were the precursors of figs. If a tree does not bear taqsh, then it does not bear figs at all that year. Jesus rebuked the tree for being duplicitous – having the appearance of abundance and flourishing in the fullness of its leaves but bearing no fruit.
Likewise, the Temple was not bearing fruit. Though from the outside the Temple was the most grand and magnificent edifice in all of Israel, spiritual fruit had gone from it. It was a hollow shell and false image.
Let me give a little historical context. In those days, Jews who had been displaced to other nations and non-Jews of all ethnicities would have traveled to the Temple to worship and offer sacrifices. They would have needed to exchange their foreign currency in order to pay the half-shekel Temple-rate that helped defray the Temple’s expenses. They also would have needed to purchase animals to make sacrifices. Some business-minded Israelites thought it convenient to set up shop inside the Temple courts to service these needs and make a profit.
Now Jesus may have been angry for a couple of reasons. He could have been angry because the money changers and animal merchants were profiteering at a higher rate than warranted and ripping off travelers who had no other resort. Or, he could have been angry because the Temple courts were simply not meant to be a place for touting wares.
Perhaps both of these are true. Jesus accused the money changers and merchants of “robbing.” He didn’t mean only that they stole from their spiritual brothers. He meant that they stole from God. The money changers and merchants had likely set up shop in the outer courts, the only place open to non-Jews to worship. As a result, rather than being a blessing to all nations, as God had ordained, these Israelites had reduced the Temple to a place of double-crossing and thievery.
Jesus saw past the pretense – the show of leaves – and piercingly judged these men by the fruit of their lives. These Israelites offered a ceaseless stream of incense and burnt sacrifices to the heavens, but did not live by the same law. Repeating the task of these rituals was easy, the religious equivalent of hiding behind leaves. But Jesus saw that inside, they had failed to pray, to live by the Scriptures, and to acknowledge Jesus, despite privately confessing to themselves that he had authority and inspiration unlike any they had ever seen. In contrast, these men sought, in the verses following this passage, to kill him.
What is astounding about Jesus is that while his own spiritual brethren plotted his death, he went to the Cross to sacrifice his life for their salvation. Jesus looks into the depths of man and understands his shortcomings, then says, “But I love you. You are much more than that.” We might offer offense instead of worship, deface his Temple, and plot to kill him, yet he would give us the clothes off his back, destroy the temple of his body, and offer his life to save us. We all have leaves that mask fruitless branches. Let us look to this God, who sacrificed himself for us, to help us bear fruit.
Ruirui Kuang ’12, a former Design Editor of the Ichthus, is currently working in the government sector in DC.