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.
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.”
The Fig Tree Cursed
This may seem like an odd story if we just try to understand the biological and physical manifestations of Jesus’ encounter with a fig tree. But the symbolic is more powerful and communicates a deeper meaning.
Trees are symbolic to the people of Israel and their history. The tree of life from Genesis contains enough symbolic overtones to get us thinking more imaginatively about how trees can be more than just trees. The fig tree is no different.
Ched Myers cites William Telford:
“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Age of Israel’s history, past, present, and future, are given - the Garden of Eden, the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Promised Land, the reigns of Solomon and Simon Maccabaeus, and the coming of the Messianic Age [The Barren Temple and the Withered Fig Tree: 1980, 161f] (Myers, 297).”
The fig tree bearing no fruit for a hungry Jesus (even though we are told it was not season) represents the opposite of what the symbol of the fig tree points to; peace, security, and prosperity. This will serve as a critique of the temple system.
Jesus Clears the Temple
Jesus returns to the temple after his brief glimpse from the previous day. In this visit he moves to swift and decisive action. He drives out those selling and buying in the temple. He overturns the moneychangers tables the seats of those who sold doves. He stops anyone from carrying anything through the temple. He teaches. These actions interrupt the flow of usual temple activity.
The idea of Jesus being upset by commerce in the temple has been dismissed by scholars. We know that the mechanics of temple - the changing of money and buying of animals - was a necessary reality during the time of Jesus. “The Jerusalem temple…was fundamentally an economic institution, and indeed dominated the city’s commercial life. The daily operation of the cult was a matter of employment for curtain makers, barbers, incense manufacturers, goldsmiths, trench diggers, and countless others (Myers, 300).”
The practices are not what Jesus is critiquing, it is how they are used and who controls them that upsets Jesus. The temple was meant to be a beacon of hope for the needy, the poor, and the oppressed. The grain offerings and sacrifices were collected to by redistributed to those in need. The priests were in charge of this process. But the mechanics had broken down.
Instead of a place of resource redistribution, the temple and its economi mechanics were being used to maintain the power of the religious leaders and the ruling class, who control the economic practices. This is what Jesus is critiquing.
The money changers serve as a prime example. “Given the fact that Jerusalem was extremely cosmopolitan, with revenues pouring in from the Jewish diaspora all over the Mediterranean world, we must see the money changers as street level representatives of a banking interest of considerable power. Mark considered these moneychangers suitable symbols of the oppressive financial institutions he so fiercely opposed (Myers, 301).” The critique then is of a system that does not aid and support those in need. The money changers represent a system that has gained power by leveraging the interests of the poor. The poor are driven further into debt while the financial institutions gain power. It is this blatant misuse of power and influence that Jesus attacks.
“They (money changers and those selling doves) represented the concrete mechanisms of oppression within a political economy that doubly exploited the poor and unclean (Myers, 301).” It is this system that Jesus critiques on behalf of the poor and marginalized. The overturning of the tables and seats of those selling doves is a symbolic statement against the brokenness of the temple systems.
The symbolic curse of the fig tree becomes clear: the temple as a symbol of peace, security, and prosperity has not born fruit for those who need it most.
Faith to Move Mountains
After the disciples notice the withered fig tree, Jesus launches into discussion of the power of belief. Jesus tells the disciples, “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.” This is the power of imagination at work.
Jesus has just overturned the temple mechanics. The temple can symbolically understood as a mountain. In a sense, Jesus has just cast a mountain into the sea. He has altered how people encounter the temple, and thus how they encounter God. This was world changing for his people.
“The modern reader must remember that in the social world of the first century Middle East, a temple was closely identified with the deity’s existence. This was supremely true for the Jew; one cannot simply repudiate the temple without provoking the most fundamental crisis regarding Yahweh's presence in the world (Myers, 304).”
The idea of the mountain being thrown into the sea recalls the heard of pigs in the healing of the Gerasene demoniac in chapter 5.
The casting of the “legion” of demons into the sea can be understood as a critique of Roman military might. “As impossible as it may seem, Mark insists that the overwhelming power and legitimacy of both the Roman “legion” and a Jewish mountain will meet their and – if the disciples truly believe in the possibility of a new order. That is to say, faith entails political imagination, the ability to envision a world that is not dominated by the powers (Myers, 305).”
Prayer has the power to help us envision a new world. Prayer can inspire our imagination, helping us to encounter how God sees the world, and all the potential opportunities that God’s vision brings to life. The new social reality called the kingdom of God is this vision unfolding in our midst. The overturning of broken systems of power is a reality. Prayer empowers us to see this and use our lives accordingly.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- What institutions in our midst, that are meant to give life, need to be overturned and critiqued?
- How does a community of faith participate in this overturning?
- How does our faith help us to shape the future after an overturning?
- How does prayer empower us to imagine a new future?