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 was teaching them and saying 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 were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they 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, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” –Mark 11:12-25
I watched the pilot episode of a new TV series last week. It’s about a low-level cabinet member who became President in an instant when the US Capitol Building was destroyed by terrorists during the State of the Union address. The digitally produced images of the ruins of the Capitol building were very realistic and gave me a terrible feeling. Could someone do that? Is this how it would be if they did? It was such a disturbing feeling that I wondered if the producers of the program had gone a little overboard. Then it hit me that this is akin to what the destruction of the Temple would have been like in Jerusalem. No one could have imagined such a sickening thought. Yet, in the passage above, Jesus is saying just that. Because of the corruption of the place, terrorists are going to come and “wither” it.
This passage is another great example of Mark’s use of “sandwich stories.” Vv. 12-14 are about the fig tree. Vv. 15-19 concern the Temple, and vv. 20-25 go back to the fig tree. The Temple portion is “sandwiched” in the before-and-after fig tree parts. Mark is using this literary device because we probably wouldn’t understand that the fig tree is a dramatic acted parable about what Jesus was going to do in the Temple.
Somewhere between Bethany and Jerusalem (not a long ways), Jesus comes upon a fig tree and curses it for not having figs even though it wasn’t the season for figs. Then Jesus goes into the Temple and, at least for a period of time, shuts down the operation of selling animals and money exchange services for the sacrifices people wished to present. What a scene! Jesus pronounces His verdict from Jeremiah: “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 first few chapters of Jeremiah make it clear that if Israel used the temple as an excuse for immoral behavior, then this wonderful blessing where heaven met earth would be judged.
Jesus says it has become “a den of robbers.” The word translated “robbers” or (some translations) “thieves” has a specialized flavor to it, meaning something more like “revolutionaries” or “insurrectionists.” Yes, they are thieves and robbers, but not generally so. They are the ultra-orthodox, planning and plotting. In other words, instead of becoming the light of the world to all the nations as the Temple was meant to be, these revolutionaries have a narrow, nationalist, political drive to bring a great rebellion against Rome. As we’ve seen before in Mark’s gospel, this is not Jesus’ way of bringing about the Kingdom of God.
The Temple will wither like the fig tree, but Jesus ends the section with a promise of hope. “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The mountain that is “taken up and thrown into the sea” is the Temple Mount, and prayer is the cause of it. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree, so the prayers of the saints are how God will deliver the Church. That’s why the persecuted saints must not become vindictive and unforgiving. “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” That’s how Jesus brings His great Kingdom, and that’s the gospel.
Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. –Mark 11:1-11
It’s quite a climb from Jericho (the lowest elevation of any city on earth—846 ft. below sea level) to Jerusalem (2582 ft. above sea level). At the peak of Jerusalem was the temple. This is the place where God had placed His name and special presence. Through the regular daily sacrifices there, Israel could take confidence in forgiveness of sins and God’s continued fellowship with them. The temple is the one place where heaven and earth meet. Going there would be quite a spectacular experience. Add to that the Passover traditions of celebrating the great Jewish stories of the past, full of hope and freedom, along with reunions with old family and friends. No wonder there was feasting, prayer, dancing and singing! Where was the Kingdom of God for them? Right there.
That is the environment in which Jesus and the disciples approach Jerusalem. They are processing up to the Kingdom, except this time they have the King with them. He’s riding on a colt that He has commanded with His sovereign freedom. The people get it because they provide a red carpet treatment using their cloaks. (Nobody would throw down the cloaks on the dirt for anyone but a king!)
There have been other messianic figures in the past such as Judas Maccabaeus. He defeated the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. This was 200 years before Jesus, and when he entered Jerusalem, he cleansed and rebuilt the temple (this is undoubtedly messianic stuff). The people waved palm branches and sang hymns of praise. His dynasty was enthroned for a century. The picture Mark (and the other gospel writers) is painting is clear: this scene in Mark 11 is a royal reception of Jesus. The disciples have been told of His royalty since chapter 8 and that’s why they have traveled there.
News of Jesus has obviously preceded him. The cheerful chant of the people, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” is from Psalm 118, which, not surprisingly, concerns going up to Jerusalem and the Temple. I’ve found that some people have been confused about the meaning of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It sounds ambiguous, like “he” might mean anyone or “He” might be limited to the messiah. But it’s simply a common Aramaic and Hebrew salutation: “Welcome!” That’s not politically sticky at all. The politically dangerous part is what they inserted: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” This is very much like the politically risky calling out of Bartimaeus in the previous passage. The Herods were touchy, and this was not going to be tolerated!
For such a grand and exciting scene, it ends with a great big nothing. Jesus checks out things around the temple and leaves not just the Temple, but Jerusalem—just like that. Mark lets the reader hang in such suspense that he might as well have added, “Tune in next time….”
What the crowds were chanting was correct. Jesus is the greater David, and He is bringing the greater Kingdom. There will be forgiveness of sins with stories of hope and freedom. There will be feasting, prayer, dancing and singing. But there is going to be a cleansing, and this cleansing is unlike anything anyone has ever expected. It will have an outcome that won’t look much like feasting, prayer, dancing and singing, but that is where it leads; nonetheless, it is necessary for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And, strangely enough, that’s the gospel!
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”– Mark 10:17-31
The passage above is a well-known story to Christians. It has been interpreted and applied in several different ways and they aren’t all correct. Let’s get something cleared up right from the start because everything else that follows won’t be understood quite right if we trip-up from right out of the gate. When the rich man (Matthew says he was “young” and Luke says he was a “ruler”) ran up and knelt before Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he was not asking, “What must I do so my soul will go to heaven when I die?” Now, come on, I know that’s what you’ve thought before!
Reading the gospels with historically informed eyes changes the “story” for many of us. This is confirmed and informed by rabbinic literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls to let us in on something that may shock many Christians who believe the Post-Enlightenment, Post-Reformation story of salvation: Jews at the time of Jesus were not concerned about their souls going to a disembodied spirit heaven when they died. This, of course, helps to explains why we don’t find hardly anything about it in Jesus’ preaching. Before you start to protest (“But what about…?), consider what it was they did believe because that will change the way you read all the NT documents.
They believed they lived in a present evil age and that there was an Age to Come. They believed the Age to Come and the Kingdom of God is the same thing. Eternal life is for those in the Age to Come because the present age is full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression. It is a place where the wicked get away with things. Any Jew of the time wants to enter (or “inherit”) the Kingdom of God because that is where God is, at least, ruling the rule as it should be. Messiah would bring this Kingdom or this Age to Come.
That makes a lot more sense when Jesus says, “you will have treasure in heaven.” He is not talking about something up in the sky, but something on earth—the New Heavens and the New Earth, the Kingdom of God where there is eternal life and treasure stored. (The word “eternal” in the original text translates a word which means “belonging to the Age.”) Ask Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes or whomever ruled in Israel at the time who would inherit entrance and treasure to the Age to Come and the answer was simple: those who kept the law and those who were blessed by God with riches. Jesus affirms the former (law-keepers) but denies the latter (rich people). He instructs the rich man to repent of his faith in riches as well as how the community regarded him for having great possessions and follow Jesus. This is untenable for him and he, sadly, did not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. Instead, he clung to the values of the present evil age.
“The disciples were amazed at his words” because they believed people would enter the Kingdom like the rich man believed. Lest they missed it, Jesus says vividly, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Now they are “exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’”
They have finally got something right: salvation, which is eternal life in the Kingdom of God on the earth, is impossible by human power. And so “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.’” And that’s the gospel!