Today’s reading shows us how the writer of Mark uses a story to bookend or frame another story (which sheds light and gives deeper meaning to both stories). In this particular context, what happens to the fig tree and what happens in the temple interpret and shed light on each other.
I’ve always had a problem with the first part of this text. The text clearly says that it wasn’t the season for figs and yet we have text that shows Jesus hungry, expecting figs (although clearly it wasn’t time), and him cursing the tree to be barren forever. A few years ago, when I preached on this text I thought Jesus might have gone a bit far with the use of his “divine power.” But perhaps, I took the text too literally, focusing on smaller details, rather than looking at the bigger picture. Today looking at the text, if I spend time looking at what light the fig tree story sheds on that of the temple cleansing, the real main point or theme emerges, that of the lack of fruit that Jesus expected to be present.
Like the Palm Sunday text references an OT text, today’s passage draws language and imagery from Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah in chapter 7 confronts those coming to worship. In the beginning of this chapter, the prophet confronts those who think that being present in worship excuses one from justice. This chapter also sheds light on the term “den of robbers.”
While some might think that Jesus is throwing a tantrum in the temple over the money changers and the selling of sacrificial animals, both of these were necessary and essential, as adult Jews had to pay a yearly temple tax and those who travelled to the temple needed to buy ritually clean animals to be sacrificed. No, in light of the Jeremiah text, we see that Jesus’ anger comes from the temple being a “den of robbers”.
The term “den” references a safe house, a hideaway, or a place of safety. While “robbers” isn’t referencing the money changers or those selling animals for sacrifices, but rather all those who live lives full of injustice. Jesus is perturb that God’s temple has become a place of safety for those who rob, cheat, steal and do injustice outside of the temple walls.
Our God is a just God. When we substitute worship for working for justice, just like the fig tree–worship will be stopped or rejected. I recently finished Mark Labberton’s book, The Dangerous Act of Worship in which he discusses “the disconnection between worship and justice, how a more vigorous and encompassing theology of worship can help wake us up, and how faithful worship means finding our life in God and practice that life in the world, especially for the sake of the poor, the oppressed and the forgotten.”
Jesus came expecting fruit– what God considers to be most important– the ushering in of the Kingdom of God (which is justice and peace). This fruit should be evident in our worship of God, showing “up in love and justice for the sake of the poor, the needy, the oppressed and the forgotten.”
What needs to happen for our churches to be houses of prayer rather than dens of robbers?
What do I need to do for my body to become a house of prayer rather than a den of robbers?