Sunday, September 30, 2012



This is the thirty-second installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 2, chapter 11: 12-19 and Act 5, Scene 3, chapter 11: 20-25(26) in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-first installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:


Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 2

12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it. 15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, "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." 18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.(NRSV)

Scene 3

20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered." 22 Jesus answered them, "Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, "Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 "Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses." 26.(NRSV)

Scene 2: 11:12-19

At the end of Act 5, Scene 1, Jesus “looked around at everything” (11:11) in the Temple and then left Jerusalem with “the twelve.” Scene 2 opens the next day with a confusing and mysterious event. As Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem, though the immediate purpose of his return is not clear, Mark tells us that Jesus was hungry (11:12). He spots a “fig tree in leaf” (11:13) in the distance and goes to the tree, but “when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs” (11:13). One would think that would be the end of the story, if not Jesus’ hunger, for if the fig tree is not in season for fruit, it is simply not the time for figs. Jesus, however, says to the tree, “’May no one ever eat fruit from you again’ and his disciples heard it” (10:14).

If we stop right here, we are left with the strange reality of a prophetic denunciation of a tree! More than that, the tree is denounced for being a tree – the nature of fruit trees is to give fruit in season. Why denounce the tree for fulfilling its nature? Did Jesus think it should be the season for figs? Some scholars have argued that the leaves on the tree indicate that there should be fruit, but Mark’s claim that “it was not the season for figs” suggests otherwise, as does the fact that fig trees bear fruit in June in Palestine, after Passover. If we were to leave the story here, it seems that we have an illogical and angry condemnation because Jesus did not get the figs he wanted to satisfy his hunger. As odd as the story is, however, we know that Mark, to say nothing of Jesus, has something more to show us in this dramatic and unexpected rebuke.

Act 5, Scene 1 ends in the Temple; Jesus’ denunciation of the fig tree here in Act 5, Scene 2 will intercede before Jesus returns to the Temple; and Act 5, Scene 3 will complete the story of the fig tree. We have, I would argue, two interlocking Markan “sandwiches,” in which it goes Temple 1 (A)- Fig Tree 1(B) – Temple 2 (A) – Fig Tree 2 (B), though it is possible just to see it as Fig Tree 1(A) – Temple (B) – Fig Tree 2 (A). Remember that in Mark’s narrative sandwiches the one story explains the other, or makes sense of the deeper purpose of each of the stories: “each Scene explains the previous Scene and the one still to come.”

Alone, the cursing of the fig tree seems like a churlish action on Jesus’ part; it will only make sense in light of what now occurs in the narrative structure. Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem and

He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “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.” (11:15-17)

The night before Jesus had surveyed the Temple and it is now clear he did not like what he saw. He begins a very public demonstration of dissatisfaction with the Temple, overturning tables and stopping people from carrying anything through the Temple confines. This is a large area, though, and one wonders if he enlisted his disciples in this cause. We hear nothing of them, though, so they are either stunned bystanders, mouths agape at Jesus’ action, or they are participating by blocking entrances to the Temple mount and chasing people off of the Temple area.

What is the reason for doing this though? What is motivating Jesus’ violent action at the Temple? One small detail that cannot go unnoticed is Mark’s claim that Jesus “was teaching” (11:17). Mark has condensed the teaching into one line, a combination of Isaiah 56:7 LXX and Jeremiah 7:11, in which the Temple was to be a “house of prayer for all nations” not a “den of thieves.” It must be said, though, that having moneychangers and animal sellers on the Temple was rather essential for the smooth operation of the Temple sacrificial cult; there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Pilgrimage festivals drew Jews from all over the world and they had to buy animals for sacrifice – they could not carry them with them – and they had to exchange foreign currency. Is Jesus criticizing the sacrificial system itself or the way it is operating? Because the way it is operating is the way an international Temple needs to operate. Does Jesus want to see the Temple cult come to an end? I do not see this as the heart of the issue either in Jesus’ condemnation and action in the Temple.

Jesus’ teaching is summarized by Mark, but I think the best way to see Jesus’ teaching and action is not simply as a purification, or cleansing, of current practices, or a denunciation of the Temple sacrificial cult as such, but as a preparation for the eschatological Temple in the time to come. One passage which speaks of the Temple at the end of time in the OT, one of many, is Zechariah 14:16-21, though the whole of Zechariah 14 is relevant. Just as Jesus entered Jerusalem according to a prophecy from Zechariah 9, so he symbolically prepares the Temple for the age to come:

16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 17 If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. 18 If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 19 This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. 20 On that day HOLY TO THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORD's house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. 21 Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the LORD Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite {or Merchant; Trader} in the house of the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 14:16-21)

Notice that Zechariah foresees an eschatological end when all nations come to worship in Jerusalem,  when the city itself is Holy as are all the things of the Temple, and when the people themselves are Holy. The last line of the passage might also point to the end of “traders” in the Temple, though current readings suggest “Canaanite.” Whatever the precise meaning of this word, Zechariah points to a time when all people come to the Temple and worship in holiness. Zechariah brackets Jesus’ entry into the city and his “cleansing,”  but this passage does not see the end of the Temple, only a time when all nations come to a new, restored, purified Temple.

It was not yet that purified Temple, Jesus is saying, and his action points to the fulfillment of his time in Jerusalem, which he has predicted numerous times on the road to Jerusalem. How does it fit with the Fig Tree episode? That completion will only come in Act 5, Scene 3, but we can say this much already: a fig tree is to give figs and when it does not fulfill its purpose, its usefulness has come to an end; in the same way, the Temple is to be holy for all people, and if it does not realize its purpose, its time, Jesus is signifying, has come to an end. The parallel is not exact, as we shall see, but the symbolic purposes of each action are explained by the other: the fig tree is not fulfilling its goal and neither is the Temple.

There is one more matter. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for a specific purpose and we know that his time will come soon. The cleansing of the Temple will hasten this time, certainly, for the Temple officials cannot approve of Jesus’ actions in disrupting the Temple mount, especially not during the most significant pilgrimage festival of the year. Indeed, “when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18). In the midst of the unraveling of the symbolic meaning of this action, we cannot overlook the actual action and its meaning for the Temple officials: Jesus has radically disrupted the Temple and he must be stopped. Why do they need to look for a time to kill him though, when he is there on the Temple mount right now?

The “fear” that they experience must be of his control of the crowds, or his ability to entrance the crowds, and this, I think, gives us the answer. Any attempt to arrest him in a crowd will give the crowd a chance to riot since they were “spellbound by his teaching” (11:18) not by his overturning of tables. The fear of the authorities, therefore, rests not in his personal ability to disrupt the Temple, but to win over the crowds to his side. His arrest will come later, away from crowds and the public stage. As a result, “when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city” (11:19). It is another anticlimactic ending – Jesus just leaves on his own terms.

Scene 3: 11:21-26

Scene 3 completes the Markan narrative sandwich of the Fig Tree-Temple -Fig Tree A-B-A structure (or Temple-Fig Tree-Temple -Fig Tree A-B-A-B structure). The next day as Jesus and his disciples are passing by they see “the fig tree withered away to its roots” (11:20). In itself, this shows us Jesus’ prophetic and miraculous power. What Jesus said to the fig tree has come to pass; if such is the case, we can expect the same to come true regarding his denunciation of the Temple. Keep in mind, though, that Jesus does not see the Temple itself coming to an end, but being brought to fulfillment in a way that the fig tree is not. The Temple will be a “house of prayer for all nations,” we are lead to believe. If the Temple withers, it will only be to come to fruition more fully in the future.

That Mark is not certain what to do with the completion of the fig tree account is shown by the fact that he has appended to it a number of sayings on faith from the sayings of Jesus. Peter points out that the fig tree has withered (11:21) and Jesus answers saying,

Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. (11:21-25)

The sayings on faith, that is, stand apart from Jesus’ prophetic denunciations. His disciples are not expected to cleanse the Temple or curse fig trees, since this is the task of the Messiah, I would argue. Mark has attempted to transition from the awkward fulfillment of the fig tree’s withering to the faith of Jesus’ followers and the need for faith in general. The first two sayings do speak to the power of faith (faith to cast a mountain in the sea), including in prayer (believe what you have asked for in prayer), while the third saying is connected, rabbinic style, to the previous two sayings by the linking word and conception of prayer not faith (whenever you stand praying).  The final verse also gives us a link to Jesus’ prayer from Matthew and Luke – a clear sign of the oral tradition of Jesus’ sayings and the only verse from the Lord’s prayer that Mark gives us.[1]

Act 5, Scene 3 serves to reduce dramatic tension for a while, but Jesus’ return to Jerusalem is imminent and with it the plan to stop him by his opposition grows and Jesus’ goal to bring his mission to its necessary end also comes into view.

 John W. Martens
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[1] Historically 11:26 was included here also:  “But if ye do not forgive , neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses” (KJV). This verse is not found amongst the best and earliest manuscripts.