June 18th Mark 11b “Anger, Money Changers and a Fig Tree”

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Did Jesus ever get angry?  Oh, yes!  And this part of chapter eleven lets us see him enraged.    Most religious art depicts Jesus as a very self-controlled or dispassionate person.  To my mind the dispassionate paintings and drawings are the most disturbing because he doesn’t seem to feel anything deeply.  While everyone around him might be emotional, Jesus maintains expressions that seem unconcerned or bored.   There are certainly many pictures of him looking anguished, but very few where he looks joyful.

Even the in the painting of today’s lesson (attached to this letter), the artist depicts Jesus as being almost bored as he drives the money changers out of the temple.

Mark 11:12-26

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  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. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

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, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.  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.’”

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.

When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.  Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “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.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

This passage also begins and ends with Jesus and his displeasure with a fig tree.  It gives us the only time in Mark that Jesus utters a curse.  In modern times, “cursing” is simply the use of vulgar words, but the original meaning of the word was the opposite of blessing.  A normal curse is when you call upon God or some force or person to bring harm to someone.  As was stated earlier, to use the “Lord’s name in vain” is to either claim that God is on your side, God affirms your worthiness, or that God will trouble or condemn people because you told him to.  Cursing in God’s name (like God **** you) treats God as your servant.  Any time we use speak of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) outside of blessing and respect, we are using the Lord’s name in vain.

But here is Jesus angry at a fig tree and he curses it.  He was hungry and it failed him.  “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” he says and leaves it.   The next day, Peter points out that the tree has withered down to its roots.  This may seem like a silly little story that doesn’t belong with the more important stories around it, but it is vital to understand.

Jesus is revealed to us as the Son of God and the incarnation of God by the fact that he displays power in the same way God the Father has… through the spoken word.  In the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, God creates merely by speaking a command.  Likewise, many of Jesus miracles are spoken into being.  We have seen that Jesus has the power to create and heal, but this fig-tree incident reveals that he can kill with a word but chooses not to.

In many places, but especially during his torture and crucifixion, Jesus never utters a single curse against the Romans, the Jewish officials, the disciples who abandon him, or the crowds that witness his suffering on the cross.  If you firmly believe that Jesus is God’s son, you must remember the Great Flood, the plagues of Egypt, the destruction of Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea and all of the times that God worked miracles against Israel’s enemies, you should be very afraid that Jesus will curse Pharisees, Scribes, Disloyal Disciples, and everyone else with instant annihilation.

Mark is telling us that Jesus has the power to wounds as well as to heal and the power to kill with a word.  This is not magic or something supernatural:  The power of Jesus is the power of nature and the power that brought nature into being. The power of Jesus comes from outside of time and space.  If you are a painting, you don’t defy the artist.  If you are a character in a story, you should respect your author.

As for the clearing of the Temple itself, Jesus is outraged by the people who are victimizing the poor.  The money changers exchange regular coins (and possibly other items of silver and gold)( for temple currency.  Only temple currency can be used to buy animals for sacrifices in the Temple.  Poor people may only be able to buy a couple of pigeons, but the wealthy can buy sheep, goats, and calves.  The thing that makes Jesus angry is that business practices are unfair.  The cost of the animals may be too high, but the worst problem is that the moneychangers make a large profit when you exchange regular money for temple currency and also when you convert unspent Temple currency back into regular money.  In a country where so many people live in poverty, unfair business practices are a victimization of the poor.

Unfair business practices are a huge issue in the Bible and one of the biggest topics in the Old Testament and New Testament.   A random reading from the book of Proverbs tells you that God hates unfair profits and misbehavior by merchants and employers.

This incident now adds the chief priests to the list of people who would like to see Jesus killed.

The further back you go in history, the more common murder seems to have been.  While modern day political parties like to raise money by saying that crime is getting worse and worse,  murder rates generally fall more and more with time.   Times when murder rates seem to spike are actually when we have gotten better at detecting and jailing killers.  Things look bad now because we are match better at catching killers.  So back in the first century when there was no police force and very few cases of killers being caught, it was relatively easy to do away with someone.  With a few coins in the right hand, someone could be stabbed, poisoned, or beaten to death.  Both the Herod family and the royal family of the Emperors of Rome suffered a very high murder rate by knife and poison.  The most common forms of murder were done under cover of darkness or by presenting false evidence at trails. 

When asked about the destruction of the fig tree, Jesus talks about faith that can change the world around you.  He finishes with these words:  “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

So his guidance is not to curse or hurt others, but to pray for them, and forgive them so that you will be forgiven.   Even though Jesus kills a fruit tree and turns over tables and chases people in the temple, he does not want us to hate or hurt people.  We are told that he causes confusion by upsetting the tables, but there is no mention of anyone hurt or cursed by Jesus.

But remember that Jesus cares deeply about us.  He cares deeply when we mistreat the poor.  He cares deeply and is nothing like the stoic or dispassionate control-freak that we sometime imagine.  The love of Jesus is a very profound, spiritual, and heart-felt thing.

I wish that we had more pictures of Jesus looking, joyful, depressed, amused, angry, adoring, playful, concerned, exhausted and exuberant. 

Thankfully, we see glimpses of all those things in the words of the four Gospels.

Questions to Ponder:  Why does Jesus cast-out demons, but never kill them?  Why doesn’t Jesus curse the men who torture and kill him?

Blessings,

Pastor Rick