The Corrupt Temple

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 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. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. 15 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, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 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.’” 18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. 19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. 20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” 22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” [26]

Mark 11:12-26

I never used to go to the cinema, but in the last couple of years or so I’ve started going quite a bit. I really enjoy watching movies on a big screen, and, of course, all cinemas are kitted out with fantastic sound systems that really help to bring the experience to life. The whole pleasurable experience is topped off with a big bag of Pick ‘n’ Mix and an ice cold Coke. What does irritate me, though, is the rip-off prices that cinemas charge for their food and drink. Once, when I went with a friend, he took his own bag of Minstrels with him, but was caught by the cinema manager. The manager told my friend that he could not take his own food in to the movie with him. When my friend asked why, the manager told him that the food and drink that they sold in the cinema had been specially selected because it would not damage their upholstery. My friend queried how the Minstrels that the cinema sold were any different to the ones that he had brought with him, but the manager was not prepared to continue the discussion any further, and confiscated my friend’s sweets.

In this passage from Mark, we see Jesus getting angry at the way in which the Temple was trying to rip off people who had gone to offer sacrifices to God. He watched with horror as he saw people who had brought doves to offer as sacrifices were told that they were not suitable, and were sold replacement by the High Priest’s family at greatly inflated prices. He could not believe it when he saw the Temple insisting that fees were paid using their own currency and watched as people were ripped-off as they tried to change their money. The scene that Jesus saw was so far from the ideal of the Temple as a “house of prayer” that he was moved to action. He overturned the tables, and accused those present of turning his father’s house into a “den of robbers.” Those who sought to honour God were being ripped off. Those who should have known better, and were tasked with running the Temple had corrupted it and were using it as an opportunity to get rich themselves. God’s people were being abused by their religious leaders. It’s no wonder that Jesus was angry!

Jesus’ anger goes beyond the commercialisation of religion, however. This scene took place in the Court of Gentiles, the only area of the Temple in which non-Jews were permitted. What should have been a “house of prayer for all nations,” a quiet place where anyone could come and worship God, had become a busy, noisy, and smelly location where the emphasis was on making money rather than listening to God. The Gentiles were not able to enjoy the privileges that they had been promised because of the evil ways of the Temple priests.

The rather confusing incident with the fig tree is perhaps a living parable of what was happening at the Temple. Jesus looked at the fig tree, and whilst it had leaves, there was no sign of any fruit. Jesus curses the fig tree; without fruit, it was useless. To many this seems absurd; Mark tells us that it “was not the season for figs,” so surely Jesus should not have expected to see fruit. It was normal, however, that when a fig tree began to leaf, small fruits would appear that would then fall off prior to the proper figs growing. These fruits, although not particularly tasty, were often eaten by people working in the fields. If a tree lacked this early growth, it was a good indication that the tree was not going to bear fruit at the correct time. Jesus, knowing such detail, would be well aware that the tree was destined not to bear fruit when the proper time came.

Jesus often spoke about fruit in his teaching since this was something that those listening to him could easily relate to. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus tells his disciples that “by their fruit you will recognise them” (Matthew 7:16a). He goes on to say that “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” The fig tree that Jesus encountered, however, wasn’t bearing any fruit, and the signs of it ever doing so were not good. In the same passage, Jesus says what should be done to such a tree: “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The fig tree on the way to Jerusalem, therefore, deserved to be destroyed. The same could be said of the Temple; it was not currently bearing any fruit, since it was corrupting the experience of worshipping God, and all the signs suggested that it would never bear any fruit. If this was the case, if it wasn’t pointing to God, it was no longer fit for purpose, and deserved to be destroyed.

Jesus next speaks to his disciples about prayer. Prayer is something that many of us struggle with. We know that we are told to do it continuously (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but most of us fall way short of that instruction. Jesus tells us that “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” This is quite a remarkable statement to make! There are a couple of requirements that go with this bold statement, however. The first is to “have faith in God.” We have to bring ourselves in line with God, to be faithful to his will, and to seek to serve him. If we do these things, then we will desire what God wants and our prayer will be answered. We also have to ensure that we are not nursing any grievances against anyone. Jesus tells us that before we pray, we have to forgive anyone who has hurt us. By doing so, God will forgive us too, and then our prayer will be answered. Jesus perhaps was thinking of the scene that he had just witnessed in the Temple; he knew that it was necessary to forgive those who had offended him, no matter how great the offence they had caused him.

This passage is by no means an easy one to understand and interpret. What is clear, however, is how Jesus hates those who seek to make it difficult to follow him and to worship his Father. Are there things that we do, as individual Christians or as Churches that make it difficult for people to worship Jesus, or to listen to God? Do we need to “clear our temples” in the same way that Jesus did in order to return to a pure and perfect relationship with God? If we are known by our fruit, are we bearing good fruit, bad fruit or none at all? What about how we pray? Do we forgive those who offend us before we pray to God? When we pray, do we have faith in God? Do we have the confidence for a mountain to be thrown into the sea it will happen? I know that I find this really difficult, and will be praying that God will help me to get better. How about you? Will you join me?

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