Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the Pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.
This morning’s blog is an excerpt from his March 20th Sermon.
This reading from Mark 12 is confusing. Mark uses a literary structure called bookends, two parts of one story designed to help us understand another.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he taught, and said to them, "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. And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, "Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered." And Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God.
The bookends are a story about cursing the fig tree. Jesus is hungry. As he and the disciples approach the temple he sees the fruitless fig tree. Though it is not the season for figs, Jesus curses the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
He proceeds to the temple and drives out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers…"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.”
The term “den of robbers” has been misinterpreted as about misusing the temple for commerce, an anti-Semitic stereotype of selling and buying. It is instead a reference to the use of the term in Jeremiah 7: 4-15.
“This is the temple of the LORD. For if you truly amend your ways, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place…Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?
The temple had become the symbol of religious acquiescence to the power of government. Religious leaders had sold out to Roman power, allowing Rome to even name the chief priests. The religious leaders had accepted the responsibility of making sure church members didn’t criticize the rich and powerful. They had also become wealthy and powerful and the temple had become a symbol of selling out God for personal gain. Anything sounding vaguely familiar?
They had gone after other gods as surely as those who built the golden calf. The story is a part of the Gospel because every generation of the church needs to be reminded that we are not here to stand by quietly while governments make decisions about war, poverty, health care, education and the distribution of wealth. Neither are we to be the quiet beneficiaries of bigotry and hate. If the church does not use its prophetic voice as did Jeremiah, its tables should likewise be overturned and its money changers expelled.
The story concludes, “As they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, "Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered." And Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God.”
What holds these two stories together? God’s hope, God’s expectation that we bear fruit…that churches, temples, Mosques are places where people who are hungry are fed, where those who are placed on the margins of society by the government are welcomed. In the process we may have to embarrass the king as David did Saul and Jesus did the Pharisees…but in the final analysis, what good is a fig tree if it doesn’t produce fruit when Jesus is hungry?