Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lenten Reflections on Mark – Jesus in the Temple, Pt 3

Widows and Gentiles

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 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. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

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; 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.” 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. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” Mark 11 (12-21)

Our text is redacted using a rhetorical format that places this week’s central event inside of a narrative envelope (in bold) where a story is begun, then interrupted and then subsequently finished. We recognize such a stylistic technique as operative in the prior telling about the healing of Jairus’ daughter which is interrupted by the tale of the woman who touched the tassels of Jesus’ garments and was made clean. In principle, the outer story clarifies the meaning of the more obscure inner tale, or at least that is what it is supposed to do..

One of the more traditional readings interpreting this Temple event that we have examined has Jesus’ action overturning tables as representing a rejection of the temple system itself sandwiched inside a story about the cursing of a plant that bears no fruit that serves as a symbolic representation of the failure and hypocrisy of temple leadership. As the Jesus movement became thoroughly Gentile and de facto a separate religion, this story unfortunately becomes a metaphor in the larger motif where Christianity is seen as superseding Judaism.

However, as we saw in the previous post, we may need to be a bit more careful. In the first place, if we want to see an analogy between a fruitless fig plant and a fruitless temple leadership, we need to be suspicious of generalization, for a criticism of a particular party’s ineffectiveness does not automatically represent a wholesale rejection of the institution. One might criticize present incumbents to an office without denouncing the office itself.

Ched Myers, whose commentaries I generally find helpful as we seek to understand certain subtexts about conflict between various groups in Judea, takes this sort of approach. He sees in Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom a radically new social vision and agenda. Myers argues that in the healing and exorcism stories Jesus has declared an end to first the purity system and now the encounter in the temple is a symbolic overturning of the sacrifice system.

Myers doesn’t make this stuff up. It seems to me that Jesus is clearly speaking against the overwhelming burdens these systems levy on those marginalized. Mark’s focus on the sellers of doves may speak to the particular hardship the system places on the poor. I will look at this again in my next post.

Myers’ interpretive strategy points to Jesus’ outrage at the scribes and then suggests that it follows that the rage extends to the widow being made to search for lost coins in her house in order to pay her temple dues. This is sort of like looking for loose change in the sofa to pay the light bill. This is hardly a stewardship sermon.

Having said that, Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine warns us as we too easily draw a conclusion that sounds good in the 21st century, but may not square with the facts of first century Judaism. Levine is not suggesting that Jesus is not critical of the scribes, but as she writes. “Readers make the interpretive choice of concluding that the temple does what the scribes do” Such a choice might be jumping too quickly. Levine notes that the two events and two sayings of Jesus (the ones Myers conflates) happen at two different times and two different places. She points out that not all scribes are nasty. In fact, it is also a scribe who comes very close to getting it, i.e he isnear to the Kingdom (Mark 12 (34). While some do wear long robes and prance around, it is apparently not in the temple, but in the synagogues and banquet halls. Might it be that the widow wants to support the temple and that the temple might be a place where even a poor widow (not just the men 20 and above) can contribute, even if it is out of her poverty. Levine writes:

If Jesus is so appalled by the Temple’s encouraging the widow to contribute all that she has – even as he has been telling his followers to do the same –then his failure to stop her from donating her coin becomes inexplicable. To condemn a practice as unjust while allowing it to be perpetuated is hypocritical. If Jesus can turn over the tables of the money changers and drive people out of the temple, then surely he could have whispered something to the widow. I doubt the ritual-purity police would fault him.

Or again, Levine suggests that “readers might therefore choose to praise the widow in the Temple, who did not allow the scribes to take her money, but who instead dedicated it as she saw fit.” Maybe this is a stewardship sermon after all.

In the long run, we may have to be satisfied that there might be several interpretations that make sense. I find Levine’s caution that we must be on the outlook for perspectives that can be used to denigrate Judaism to be an important warning, but I don’t think we can naively write off the underlying issue of corruption. While she is critical of Borg’s talk of a domination system, there may be compromise that makes both points. I find it interesting that many scholars who remind us of the crucial role being played by those who sell animals for sacrifice and those who exchange money seem to miss one interesting point. Certainly, the merchants are obviously necessary to serve the spirituality practiced at the temple. But who made the decision that only temple minted coins (or Tyian currency which with its silver content did not lose value) could be used for the commerce, daily offerings or paying the temple tax.. But Caesar’s image is on the coin; doesn’t that make it less holy? Perhaps, but it doesn’t make the coin less able to be spent. Somebody is making a profit somewhere.

Acknowledging that Jesus is upset at petty corruption certainly does not finally require a full scale break from tradition such as the one Myers suggests. I think Jesus is best seen as a reformer, a prophet calling for repentance, not a revolutionary heralding a whole new religious vision. It is one thing to say the God’s Kingdom radically contrasts with Roman imperialism, but it is quite another to suggest that Jesus is making a total break from his rich Jewish heritage of longing for justice.

In our last conversation we noted that the scale of this event could not realistically have included shutting down the whole temple system of commerce that was necessary for its operation, especially at these huge pilgrim festivals. This story may point to an event where Jesus did physically shut down some of the operation. Again, this may be less about commerce on the temple mount and surrounding streets, and more about a small intrusion of that commerce across the boundaries of sacred space.

The temple mount is still under construction. This is speculation on my part, but could work on the front portico, where a lot of business did take place squeeze the space to the point that the temple administration allowed for the temporary encroachment of venders into the Gentile Courts? I think it is at least plausible.

Mark has Jesus quoting from Isaiah – My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?

The temple mount is divided into several more and more restrictive zones or courts based on notions of relative holiness. At the center is the Holy of Holies in the temple itself which even the High Priest only enters once a year. The chief priests certainly officiate both in the outer room and outside in the central court. A low wall divides priests and lay men. During the Passover festival, the family representative will actually slit the throat of the lamb and then hold it over a basin held by a priest to capture the blood which belongs to God. The basin is then passed in bucket brigade fashion to those positioned at the altar who flings the blood onto its base.

Surrounding the men’s court is the women’s court where they can stand and watch with the children. The surrounding area is the Court of the Gentiles again divided by a low wall with the now famous inscription warning in both Greek and Latin that Gentiles not to go farther under the possibility of the penalty of death.

You will remember that what gets the Apostle Paul in trouble during his last trip to Jerusalem had to do with bringing a Gentile into an inner courtyard. I think it is not simply rhetoric when Paul writes that in Christ, there is no male nor female, no slave nor free, no Jew nor Gentile. It is indeed a comment on the structure of the temple mount and the holiness code.

Indeed, I believe that on the first day, Jesus looked around and saw the venders’ tables, now shut down for the day but set up for the next day’s special business around the edges of the Court of the Gentiles. Jesus got really mad and the next day when he got to the temple he directly confronted the venders and their servants cutting across the courtyard. He overturned the tables and benches probably letting several birds go free and he accused the temple administrators (the chief priests) of desecrating the space set aside for the nations (i.e. the Gentiles) where they could pray.

Hans Dieter Betz reaches the same conclusion.

The problem that apparently irritated Jesus was that the merchants and the bankers had moved inside the sacred precinct to conduct their business. The situation brought about a conflict between business and worship, with business increasingly disturbing worship not only by the inevitable noise, confusion and filth but also by introducing differences interests and values. Once allowed inside the sacred precinct business inevitably expanded into the space reserved for worship, thus subverting the very purpose of the sanctuary.

Levine points out that Bruce Chilton also suggests a similar understanding when he claims that Caiaphas had relocated venders previously found on the Mount of Olives into the Court of the Gentiles and that Jesus and other Jews had raised questions about such a move.

Now, Chilton’s account found in his provocative book, Rabbi Jesus, argues for a large scale direct action involving many of his followers moving in and out of the precinct before the Roman guard could react.. Maybe, the Mel Gibson script is not completely off the wall. Chilton points to Mark 15 (7) when he speaks of Barrabas who committed murder during the insurrection.

I want to take at least one more pass at this story but that will require a different post. Lets keep talking.

Grace and Peace,



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