A Second Look at Jesus’ Fig-Tree Cursing and Temple-Cleansing and a “hard” landing.
“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” [Mark 11:25].
In the Gospels, we read about Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem together with his twelve apostles and a growing crowd. Jesus’ journey was in fact a pilgrim’s ascent from Galilee to Jerusalem. That “ascent” progressed in several dimensions.
First, it was an “ascent” in a geographical sense, from the plain of Galilee to the Holy City. The Sea of Galilee is 679 feet below sea level whereas Jerusalem is generally 2,500 feet above. Aware of this fact, our own Holy Land Pilgrimage a few years ago delightfully began from Tiberias in the north of Israel where the Sea of Galilee is, instead of from Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the middle. As the coach progressed towards Jerusalem, the climbing or ascending reality was gradually working up a quiet excitement in us.
For Jesus, the immediate goal of his journey was Jerusalem on account of its Temple and the Passover. The Temple, The Book of Deuteronomy says, is the place where God desired to “establish the dwelling” of his name (cf. 12:11; 14:23). And so the journey was a pilgrim’s journey, and the ascent was deep in spiritual implications, way more than the geographical sense.
Take a look at the map.
A critical turning point in Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee occurred at Caesarea Philippi. Consider the scene where Jesus asked the crucial question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). Peter answered “You are the Christ” [to which Matthew added “the Son of the Living God”] – and from that point on, Jesus’ face was resolutely turned towards Jerusalem, towards his Cross. Now, we see that Jesus’ pilgrim “ascent” to Jerusalem had the cross as its ultimate focus. In a most spiritually excruciating sense, Jesus’ physical ascent to Jerusalem was an interior and intensely agonising ascent.
From that point on, Jesus began to teach his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Three times Jesus prophesied that he must suffer grievously and die and Mark narrated the three prophecies one by one in Mark 8-10, together with the in-comprehending disciples’ reaction and behaviour after each of Jesus’ three pronouncements of impending suffering and death. These three chapters form a very interesting package of texts for reflection on discipleship. The critical point for our reflection here is, what occupied Jesus incessantly was not so much the Temple and the Passover, but the Cross that awaited him.
According to E.P. Sanders in Jesus and Judaism, the incidence of the cleansing of the Temple holds the key to Jesus’ execution, not any of the string of other matters which others suggest lead to his crucifixion. He does not see a “cleansing” of the Temple in any sense, for Jesus was not reforming business ethics: neither was he eliminating business practice as such, nor was he opposing commercial greed. Furthermore, Jesus was neither focusing on “inner meaning” of sacrifice, nor was he purifying the sacrifice system of “externals” . What he did, in Sanders’ view, was a symbolic action in the prophetic tradition, one designed to express an attack of some kind on the Temple itself.
This would be an attack on the sacrifice that constitutes the only Jewish religion there had ever been, an attack that would have been offensive not only to the priests who performed the sacrifices or the rabbis who considered them ordained by God, but to all pious Jews, as they brought their sacrifices and so themselves to seek forgiveness from their Lord. What happened was an attack of the most fundamental sort on the authority of the Temple religion as the means of mediation between God and human beings.
In his latest book [Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection], Pope Benedict XVI describes the three prophecies as steps in Jesus’ pilgrim ascent. They point to Jesus’ inner ascent that is accomplished in the outer climb – the reality that was happening inside him as he made that physical journey towards Jerusalem. The spiritual struggle involved in that ascent, both for Jesus and his first disciples, is most telling when Peter, on hearing Jesus’ first prophecy of passion, took Jesus aside and remonstrated with Jesus. This is Satanic temptations in the wilderness all over. Peter, who was going to be the leader of the select group must not be allowed to continue on his erroneous vision and mislead the rest. So Jesus responded sharply, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” [Mark 8:33]. It must have sounded like a thunderbolt to Peter, as shocking as it was disturbing, especially since Peter was only looking out for the well-being of his teacher and friend whom he has just confessed as the Christ. Why was Jesus so rough with Peter?
The problem is, Jesus had his mind set on divine things while Peter had his mind set on human things. Jesus, committed to the will of God, thought in terms of the salvation of human kind and would not turn away from the Cross. Peter, for all his misplaced good will, would only be a stumbling block to Jesus and a bad influence on the rest of the Twelve. Peter must be brought back to walk in line with Jesus’ ascent, following Jesus and not leading him [hence “get behind me“], otherwise Jesus’ whole mission would be lost.
Here is what it really comes down to. Jesus’ vehement rebuke of Peter complements the rest of the evidence that the ultimate and resolute goal of Jesus’ “ascent” to Jerusalem was his self-offering on the Cross which would replace the old system of animal sacrifice. It is the ascent that the Letter to the Hebrews describes as going up, not to a sanctuary made by human hands [as the Temple was], but to heaven itself, into the presence of God (9:24) This ascent into God’s presence leads via the Cross – it is the ascent towards “loving to the end” (John 13:1) which is the true mountain of God – the definitive place of contact between God and humans.
On the way to Jerusalem, the fruitless fig-tree was cursed.
During the entry into Jerusalem, the people paid homage to Jesus as the Son of David with the words of Psalm 118:25-26 of the pilgrims: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9-10). Then he arrived at the Temple. But, where there should be the space of the meeting between God and humans, he found authorized traders using the place of prayer for business traffic. It is true that the animals being sold there were destined for sacrifice in the temple. And because it was forbidden to use coins in the temple on which there were representations of the Roman emperor, which were in conflict with the true God, it was necessary to exchange them for coins that did not bear idolatrous images. But all of that could have been done elsewhere: The place that it had now appropriated was supposed to be the atrium for the pagans – the Court of the Gentiles. The God of Israel was in fact the God of all peoples. And even if the pagans did not enter, so to speak, into the interior chamber of revelation, they could nevertheless, in the atrium, associate themselves with prayer to the one God. The God of Israel, the God of all people, was always also awaiting their prayer, their seeking, their invocation. But now, the atrium was dominated by business, business that had been legalized by the competent authority, an authority which, for its part, had a share of the merchants’ earnings.
The merchants were acting in a correct way according to the order that was in force, but the order itself was corrupt. “Greed is idolatry,” says the letter to the Colossians (3:5). It was this idolatry that Jesus encountered and in the face of which he cited Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7) and Jeremiah: “But you have made it a den of thieves” (Jeremiah 7:11). Against the bad application of the law in the Temple, Jesus, with his prophetic gesture, defended the true order of things that was found in the Law and the Prophets. In cleansing the Temple, Jesus was purging it to make it holy again for nations to come from the ends of the earth to see it. But his cleansing actions were symbolic of something much deeper. Overturning the tables and driving the traders out, he no longer promoted the animal-sacrifice system for which worshipers had come. Far from restoring the Temple, he was pronouncing its doom! The fig tree, symbolizing Israel (see Mark 13:28), has been found wanting and judged. Like the fig tree, the Temple’s function was now withered to the roots. So, in the purification of the Temple, there is a whole lot more going on than the struggle against abuses. A new moment in history has been foretold. The table was overturned; the fig tree had withered to the roots. Like the pot-shattering symbolic action in Jeremiah, the old system of animal sacrifices had come to the end, and a new system was now about to be put in place. What Jesus had announced to the Samaritan woman in regard to her question about worship was now beginning in earnest: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him” (John 4:23).
- The time in which animals were sacrificed to God has ended. Animal sacrifice had always been a miserable substitution, a poor gesture in anticipation of the true way of worshiping God.
- Enters Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, the Son of God. Of the life and work of this Son, the Letter to the Hebrews describes using a phrase from Psalm 40 : “You did not want sacrifices or offerings, but a body you prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5). And he has resolutely turned his face to make that holy ascent to the Holy Cross.
- Jesus’ “ascent” to the Cross was also his ” assent” to God. His “yes” to God was in utter obedience to God’s desire that he lived “a noble and beautiful human life, not that the Father willed that ‘blood should flow'”[see The Dutch New Catechism, 1969, p.281].
- Christ himself, the body that came into existence as a work of the Holy Spirit and not of humans, entered to take the place of the bloody sacrifices and the food offerings. Only his “love to the end,” loving humanity so completely that he would give himself totally to God, epitomises true worship, the true sacrifice. Worshiping in spirit and truth means worshiping in communion with him who is truth; worshiping in the communion of his body, in which the Holy Spirit unites us.
At the trial against Jesus, false evidence was tendered claiming that Jesus said: “I am going to destroy this Temple made by human hands, and in three days build another” (Mark 13:58). St John, in his account of the cleansing of the Temple, reports that the disciples in seeing Jesus’ words and actions in the Temple remembered the words of scripture: “Zeal for your house will devour me.” And, responding to a request by the Jews for a sign to legitimise his authority for doing what he did in the Temple, Jesus replied: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:18 f.). Very importantly, John adds that, thinking again about this event after the resurrection, the disciples understood that Jesus had spoken of the temple of his body (cf. Jon 2:21 f.)
Pope Benedict sees that from the time of the fall of Adam, human failures have always become occasions for still greater commitment on the part of God’s love for humankind. As St Paul puts it: “Where sins increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). The time of the Temple of stone, and the time of animal sacrifices in it, was over. Jesus’ purification of it was not only to purge it of abuses, but pointed to a whole new action on the part of God for humanity. There shall be a new Temple, which is Jesus Christ himself, in whom God’s love comes down to the world. Christ would be the new and living temple. He, who passed through the cross and now risen, is the living space of spirit and life in which the right worship is realized. Thus, the purification of the temple, as the culmination of Jesus’ solemn entry into Jerusalem, is the sign both of the destruction of the building and the promise of the new temple; the promise of the kingdom of reconciliation and love that, in the communion with Christ, is established beyond every frontier. All nations shall again come to worship this new Temple in spirit and in truth. Jesus has replaced the Temple as the centre of Israel’s faith.
This is very graphically described by St Mark. At the end of the crucifixion scene, Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last and at that very moment, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38). The holy sanctuary has been thrown open, the tearing of the veil from top to bottom being a work of God and not of humans, once more making it accessible to all peoples and not just to an elite group. And the centurion who saw all this said, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
The Temple, we must know, was designed to remind people that their sins had cut them off from God. The throne of God was located in that part of the Temple called the Holy of Holies, which was a forbidden inner sanctum that housed the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat. The Holy of Holies was veiled from public view by a thick curtain that stretched from floor to ceiling. Only once a year was anyone allowed behind that veil and that person was the High Priest who entered only to perform a set of prescribed rituals. If the High Priest, or anyone else, went in for any other reason or at any other time, they were struck dead. It sounds harsh, but God was making a point in those Old Covenant days – sinners were personae non grata in the presence of the Holy One. When the veil in the Temple was miraculously torn apart at the precise moment of Jesus’ death, the Holy of Holies then lay exposed with the Mercy Seat in full view. Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the true High Priest of our salvation, had sacrificed himself for humanity and thereby cleared the way of access for all humanity to the Mercy Seat of God.
The Temple of stones, and the offering of animal sacrifices, all of which made by humans, would now be replaced once and for all by the sacrifice of the Body of Christ which is not the work of human hands. The cleansing of the Temple holds an important key for understanding this replacement. Pope Benedict refers to three principal lines of interpretation seen in scholarly work.
- The first interpretation sees the cleansing of the Temple as constituting an attack, not on the Temple as such, but on its misuse. In cleansing the Temple, Jesus was acting in accordance with the Law which prescribed the Temple as a place of worship and not of trading. He was implementing the true law, in opposition to a custom that had become deeply corrupt and had become a “law”.
- The second interpretation is in terms of the political and revolutionary. This interpretation sees Jesus as belonging to the line of zealots who advocated recourse to violence to gain political freedom for Israel. But, from his baptism in the Jordan, the temptation in the desert, the Sermon on the Mount, right up to the Parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25), and his response to Peter’s confession, the Gospels point to a radically different direction. John tells us that at the time of the cleansing of the Temple, the disciples remembered that it is written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (2:7) [from the great “Passion Psalm” 69]. Zeal for God’s house led Jesus to the Passion, the Cross. The zeal to serve God through violence was transformed by Jesus into the zeal of the Cross.
- So the Pope takes a different line, namely, by his words and actions in cleansing the Temple, and from the happenings recorded of his pilgrim’s ascent from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus has shown that he himself will replace the Temple as the centre of Israel’s faith.
In the Markan sandwich, then, the cursing of the fig tree is best understood within the context of the cleansing of the Temple. The fig tree represents not the individual believer, but the Temple and the Old Covenant system of sacrifices associated with it. The Temple might appear outwardly healthy and might have born fruit in the past, but its days have come to an end. The withering of the fig tree foreshadows the destruction of the Temple. The table is overturned. The fig tree had withered to the roots.
As head of the Catholic Church, the Pope naturally thinks in terms of the Eucharist – the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood – which refers back to the Cross and thus to the transformation of the Temple sacrifice into worship of God that is in harmony with logos. The Body of Christ, made present in the Eucharist, is his self-offering to the Father. It is the pinnacle of his spiritual sacrifice. As the Body of Christ becomes the new Temple, so the Eucharist is now the new meeting place between God and his people. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” [John 12:32].
Jesus’ pilgrim ascent to Jerusalem and the Cross encourages us to be consciously intentional in our journey of life, so that it too might be a gradual but steady ascent to a life of worship in spirit and in truth. What areas of our own lives could do with some serious purification? Perhaps our personal meditations could begin with the purification of our intentions in our many activities or lack thereof, our engagements or refusals to engage, in the life and mission of the Church? In a pretty secularised world practically anywhere we live, recall Pope Benedict’s call to beware of the secular gospel during his visit to the United Kingdom in 2010. This secular gospel puts human beings at the centre of the universe, wealth as our main objective, and fulfilment as the central aim of our lives. Does the awareness that greed is idolatry also reach our hearts and our life practices? Do we not perhaps also allow idols to enter even into the world of our faith? Are we disposed to letting the Lord purify us again and again, allowing him to chase out of us and out of the Church what is contrary to him?
- For a very brief stretch of history, God had a body on this earth in the person of Jesus. What Jesus tried to do was to bring God’s presence to all of creation through love, justice, and compassion. Our true calling is to be God’s body on earth now, to continue to make his presence more fully alive to all of creation, to seek in all ways possible to stop the crucifixions, the on-going and never-ending deaths of God. For this, St. Teresa of Avila, the great teacher and great reformer of the Church, is most helpful. Ecstatically aware of God’s presence all around us, she wrote a poem, in which she explained that though Christ had no physical body on earth now, he works through us:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with
compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
- Temple-cleansing points to Jesus’ radical service for kingdom-advancement, “to the end”. His zeal for God’s house must become the Christian’s goal, Pope Benedict says. Jesus who applied himself to the full, now challenges us with this fundamental question in life and in Christian stewardship: What do we do with our time, our talent, our treasure – our “3T’s”? Only a painful but intentional ascent to Calvary will enable us to surrender to Christ and place our three “T’s”, symbolising the three crosses, on Calvary.
The stewardship logo of the diocese of Tulsa in USA captures this point most brilliantly for us. Take a look.
Notice the three T’s symbolising the three crosses and the torturous steps our Lord took to arrive Calvary. Tulsa explains: “His ultimate gift, as the perfect Steward, was everything He had and it was given – willingly” . We properly understand our own Christian stewardship when we return a portion of our own time, talent and treasure to the Lord not as something that is burdensome, but as a willing return gift to God who gave them to us out of his gracious generosity. It is only when we have understood all that, and seen what Jesus had done for us, that we might willingly follow Jesus on that arduous ascent, from within our own “Galilee”, to Calvary, and return the first portion of our time, talent and treasure to God.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, June 2011. All rights reserved.
You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.