Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Lenten Reflections on Mark – Jesus in the Temple, Pt 4

I want to say thanks for your willingness to stay with me on this trip through Mark’s passion narrative. I love Bruce Feiler books and his fascinating travelogues of what we call the Holy Land. In a sense, that is how I imagine these Bible studies, like expeditions into strange new territory. On this journey, I had figured to see the whole countryside, but as it has turned out, instead we have landed in one place, this temple narrative, and stayed much longer than planned. The trip isn’t boring, we just found more to see in this one place than we expected. It does mean that next year, I will probably need to make a second Lenten trip. Hopefully in the next few days, we can stop and visit at least one more of the possible sites before the season is over. Again, I am grateful for your patience on this journey.

Holy Rage

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.

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)

I want to take a more careful look at the envelope the author of Mark places around our temple narrative. The story of the fig tree may reveal more than the criticism of the present temple leadership. In fact, Mark may be doing something quite different. Of our four Gospels, only Mark actually uses this rhetorical device. Matthew tells the tale, but as one uninterrupted story. Neither Luke nor John includes it.

Mark tells us that while the plant is leafy, it is not the season for figs. So Jesus withers this plant, not because of its lack of fruit, but because somehow it doesn’t produce fruit when Jesus wants it to! Where is the sympathy for the poor plant that didn’t do anything wrong except follow the seasonal rhythm that God gave it in the first place?

That’s just not very nice Jesus. Is it?

We may now begin to understand other writer’s reluctance to tell the tale. Matthew conveniently leaves out the detail of which season it is`                     .

This is to say that this cursing of the fig tree is less about Jesus’ critique of temple establishment (although, he is clearly not happy with the current administration) but more about his expression of what some have called “holy rage.”

Jesus is angry! Really mad! While it is speculation, I think this anger began the prior day when Jesus got to the temple late. Mark says he checks stuff out and then quickly, he went back to Bethany for the evening. While the references in the Talmud derive the name of this village on the southwestern side of the Mount of Olives from Beit-Hine, or Betæuni, i.e. “House of Dates,” the most accepted etymology of the name is Beit-æAniaæ, or “House of Misery.” Rather than hang around all of the glory of Herod’s grand achievement, is Jesus by his choice of lodging standing in solidarity with those more traditionally marginalized?. Maybe, maybe not. In our story, Bethany and Jerusalem certainly function in contrast with each other.

We have examined the question what Jesus saw, that even after sleeping on it overnight, it made him still so angry that he would curse a fig tree for not producing fruit out of season. We have explored several plausible explanations.

What is finally clear is that Jesus enters the temple and doesn’t first go buy a lamb, he doesn’t exchange any money, he does not purify himself in the open pools, he doesn’t start the inevitable sparring with other rabbis about Torah, he doesn’t seek to reason with the sellers of pigeons and doves, he doesn’t try to get people to sign a petition, he walks straight in and overturns some tables. He takes direct action.

Here in 7 Villages, we talk a lot about repentance, though most of the conversations have to do with individual repentance. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to demean personal confession in the light of a gracious God. Theologically though, I want to argue that in the context of what I call the “great commission,” found in Matthew 25, not what is typically called the “great commission” which is found in Matthew 28 which is simply the final advice of Jesus to those to whom he was turning over his mission, the question of repentance in the face of the proclamation of the coming Kingdom emerges as the question of social justice.

While parts of the Jewish tradition stress the importance of alms, more basic is the question of justice where Jews are to respect the stranger in their midst, to be fair with the slave, and to be compassionate with the one who is marginalized, not out of a sense of pity, but as identification remembering that once we all were strangers, we all were slaves and we all were on the margins.

Jean Paul Sartre once wrote that charity eventually gets tired. Personally, as a fundraiser who must return over and again to ask for one more donation, I can identify with what Sartre is talking about. In Matthew 25, Jesus reminds his disciples that when they see the poor, they see him, and it follows that they need to see themselves as well.

Solidarity not charity ushers in a Jubilee community.

I am not suggesting that evangelism and inviting people to be disciples is unimportant, but that discipleship has to do with learning about the Kingdom and figuring out what one must do to be in partnership with God.

H. Richard Niebuhr speaks of how the church is called to be a pioneer, a community that acts on behalf of the larger society. He talks about how the encounter with “innocent suffering” can become a window into the will of God.

In the face of the observation of such irrational pain and misery, Niebuhr identifies three necessary steps: first, a visible sign where one publicly turns ones back on contributing practices, second, a process of self-examination where one abolishes that practice in one’s own life and organization, and the third, the decision to lead others in equivalent acts of repentance. In the metaphor behind the first step, I believe that he is referencing the abolitionist Quaker practice of standing with one’s back turned to the commerce at slave auctions.

I am arguing that in Jesus’ action in the temple where he figuratively turns his back by literally overturning a few tables that Jesus is making a public sign much like Niebuhr is discussing. It is not necessarily rational. It partakes of holy rage, a product mixed from exasperation, compassion and incredulity that the neighbor is not being loved as I myself would expect to be loved. If Nieburh’s model is descriptive of the dynamics of repentance, then this willingness to publicly disassociate ones self with that which is behind the “innocent suffering” is not the last step, but the first.

I have suggested that Jesus’ anger is directed at the burden that the requirements current Jewish spirituality (his native spirituality) lays on the poor. It is not a call for abolishing the temple, but reforming it. If this spirituality was not important to Jews, then they would have simply ignored it.

Hans Deiter Betz writes of what he calls the “monumentalization” of temple protocols in that day. This is a trend that emerges in both Jewish and Gentile circles. We need to rehearse the fact that this is Herod’s temple. Herod is the grand builder. His projects have included not only tripling the size of the sacred mount, but the creation of whole new cities like the new port city of Caesarea on-the-sea which has become seat of the Roman administration. Betz points out how the scale of the festivities has exponentially grown to match the grandeur of the surroundings. It is no longer a matter of the sacrifice of an oxen, but 100s of oxen. Betz writes (speaking of a Gentile temple, but the point still applies) “Faced with such splendor, how could the pious little people, the peasants and the women from the villages worship in such a place? How could the god Apollo look at a handful of barley flour they were able to afford as sacrifice, in comparison with the hecatombs offered by the rich and powerful?”

Betz argues that in Jesus’ act, he is calling for the recovery of the additional stream of spirituality (one that costs nothing) the exercise of prayer not as a replacement, but as a viable, not demeaned, pathway to worship. His action is only seen as anti-commercial because the commercial has gotten out of control.

Amy Jill-Levine suggests that we image the relationship of commerce to the temple as the relation between a gift shop and a sanctuary, but what I believe Jesus finds is that the gift shop has become like a huge Barnes and Noble and it is now a main activity in the sanctuary itself.

Getting angry in the temple is not new to Jesus. Borg and Crossan point out that this is not a matter of choosing netween justice and worship, but that what is going on has to do with the choice of priorities.

There was an ancient prophetic tradition that God insisted not just on justice and worship, but justice over worship. God had repeatedly said “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice,” but never, ever, ever, “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.”

The Bible is full of examples of these kinds of speeches,:

I hate, I despise your festivals. I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them…Take away the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream Amos 5 (21-25)

I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hos. 6 (6)

With what shall I come from before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?…He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Mic. 6 (6-8)

And Jesus teaches” “It is written, My house a shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. It has become a safe house for bandits.”

Walter Brueggemann, in his latest book, Worship in Ancient Israel: an Essential Guide, teaches how that temple ritual and sacrifice was for ancient Jews a matter of communion, the sharing of a common meal. In this sense, these speeches don’t reject such practice of reconciliation, but do express God’s word that until we have addressed the issues of justice first in our lives, God is not ready just yet to sit down and eat with us.

So in summary, I am arguing that this story is in the first place not about a criticism of Jewish liturgical practice. Jesus is clearly a pilgrim coming with his followers to celebrate the Passover which includes the sacrifice of a lamb and a family (albeit, new family) celebration of the early version of the Seder.

Secondly, this story is not finally about the unfruitfulness of leadership, even though Jesus is quite unhappy with at least some of the temple administration.

Thirdly, it is not about the inappropriateness of finances conducted in service of worship. Taking collections is not just a Methodist tradition, but one that goes back to the early church and its celebration of the Eucharist. The temple was the national bank and perhaps more important it was center to programs that benefited the poor oft times in the shadows not the public spotlights. Levine quotes Josephus as he talks about a hidden chamber where gifts were made in private and gifts were shared again in private. It was a chamber that maintained the humility of the donor and the dignity of those served.

Finally, this temple event is about the occasional appropriateness of “holy rage.” Jesus gives us permission to get angry when persons are marginalized: be they widows, the victims of financial corruption or Gentiles, the victims of religious imperialism. This story is about the fact that hope sometimes involves pitching a fit. Love is not always about being nice. Sometimes it is about demanding justice. Justice is not always about negotiation and compromise, but sometimes requires confrontation with the word of God for the people of God.

As we prepare ourselves during Lent, Mark’s Jesus tells us however, even though his disciples don’t want to hear it, that a faithful choice to stand for justice can cost one’s life.

Grace and Peace



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