Holy Week, Wednesday :: Temple :: the Place of Obedience

Take a moment and read Mark 11:11-33.

As I mentioned yesterday, even if you have places of safety—Bethany—in your life, sometimes you have to leave. As Jesus begins to press his presence in Jerusalem, he comes to the Temple, looks around, and goes back to Bethany, maybe for one final deep breath before the storm.

This episode in Jerusalem is marked by a specific sequence of images and events. Mark “bookends” or “sandwiches” the Temple incident with a curious incident with a fig tree. Most of the time when you see this in scripture it means that the outer “bookends” are intended to shed light on the inner content, and vice versa. So the fig tree is meant to tell us about the Temple, and Jesus’ actions in the Temple tell us a little about the fig tree as well.

Let’s not waste time: the fig tree represents Israel. Mark and Jesus are intentionally echoing Jeremiah 8, where the prophet is indicting the leadership of Israel as “false prophets” and leaders:

They offer superficial treatments for people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of these disgusting actions?
Not at all–they don’t even know how to blush!
Therefore, they will lie among the slaughtered.
They will be brought down when I punish them, says the LORD.
I will surely consume them. There will be no more harvests of figs and grapes.
Their fruit trees will all die.
Whatever I game them will soon be gone.
I, the LORD, have spoken! (Jeremiah 8:11-13)

So Jesus is pronouncing judgment here, but why? There’s a clue in the language that Jesus uses in 11:17. Most translations use the word, “robbers” to translate the Greek word lestes. But lestes actually indicates more violence than “robber” captures. As N.T. Wright puts it, “The Temple had become, in Jesus’ day as in Jeremiah’s, the talisman of nationalistic violence…” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 420). Jesus is angry—not so much about the exchange of goods and money changing in the temple—but about the violent resistance that the Temple has come to represent. (By the way, Jesus’ actions in the Temple are probably better understood, not so much as violent anger, but as prophetic and symbolic action, representing God’s judgment on the Temple and the nation of Israel.)

Simply put, God’s kingdom is not going to come about through violence, and Jesus’ pronouncement has much more to do with how people had twisted and/or confused the mission of God into an excuse to take up arms against Rome and “the pagans”, to seek the Kingdom through military and political victory, rather than through suffering and humility.

Good thing the church never does that any more, huh?

So Jesus moves into the place of obedience: an immediate confrontation with the economic, political, and violent “powers” of his day.

It simultaneously took immense courage, first to confront the establishment, and then later to choose suffering rather than retaliation.

  • Is there anywhere that you need to confront injustice?
  • What could it mean to confront injustice and oppression with suffering and humility? 

Tomorrow: the Upper Room, the place of intimate betrayal.

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