Based on Mark 11:20-25
What is up with the fig tree? It’s withered away to its roots when just yesterday it was a tree in leaf. Taken by itself, this passage seems disjointed and odd. It’s hard to tell what Mark – or Jesus – is up to here. But if we back up far enough, we can see that Mark has inserted the cleansing of the Temple between a two-stage story about the tree.
The point of the story of the tree and the Temple has been fairly-well debated over the years. There is speculation about the origins and placement of certain verses, and why things are arranged the way they are. Speculation is all very interesting but this is the story we have. The particulars of how it came to us in this form don’t concern us.
Yesterday, Jesus, seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, went to see whether he would find anything on it. He did not, for it was not the season for figs. So he cursed it, saying, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard him.
When they came to Jerusalem, he entered the Temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling and so on – he shut down the entire Temple economy, to the great annoyance of the chief priests and scribes. They provided essential services to those who came to worship and now it’s all messed up. The Temple is shut down; it can no longer function, even temporarily. And it’s not so much a cleansing either. E.P. Sanders wrote that “Jesus intended to prophesy the Temple’s destruction, not effect its purification.”
In the midst of all this, Jesus is teaching, saying: ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a hideout for bandits.’
In this one statement, Jesus quotes first the prophet Isaiah, then Jeremiah.
Isaiah reminds us that the Temple has always been a place of prayer. It wasn’t meant to be a place of cultic sacrifice. But it had also become a secure refuge for bandits needing a place to hide. Most of these brigands were thieves but some were assassins of the political kind. So in a broad sense, if you were one inclined to violate God’s law at will, you might see the Temple as a safe haven even as Jeremiah warned against using the Temple as a good-luck charm.
Now those people weren’t far off the mark. Today, we call our churches sanctuaries. In them, we seek rest, healing, and reconciliation. They are traditionally known to be safe havens. In the film Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson’s character dies on the steps of a church, trying desperately to get inside before the cops get him. People like me still quote his best and final line: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
So the Temple and the church both serve as houses of prayer and as sanctuaries. But problems arise when we begin to think of them only as places we can retreat to after behaving unjustly the rest of the week. Jesus teaches that this is not the place you come to only when you’re on the lam.
Bear in mind that Mark wrote his good news either immediately before or just after the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70. There is judgment – spiritual and physical judgment – looming over the Temple. The early Christians would have been aware that the place had failed as a house of prayer, but what replaced it?
Imagine the fig tree as a symbol for the Temple: from a distance, Jesus could see that it was green and leafy and full of promise. But when he got right up to it, what he expected was not what he found. So he ended it, from the roots up. What, then, will be the house of prayer if not the Temple?
With divine authority – “Truly I tell you” – Jesus claims the faith community as the new place of prayer. He breaks it down into three sequential elements: Have faith in God, because faith can move mountains; Pray, because it works; Forgive anything so that you may be forgiven.
We are all aware of some ugly goings-on in the National Football League recently regarding domestic and child abuse. In some ways, we can see clearly now, and in other ways, we are looking through a glass darkly.
All things being equal, can Ray Rice be forgiven? Is it enough that his wife might forgive him or must we all forgive him too? Rebekah Meola of Los Angeles wondered, “Is he even asking for forgiveness?” But Katie Ray-Jones, president and chief executive officer of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said, “Abusers deserve to be forgiven, especially if they make changes in their life that allows them to live a life free from continuing to be [...] abusive.”
It’s a hard road to walk.
How well we forgive depends, I think, on how often we engage in forgiveness. South Africa willingly and eagerly set up a truth and reconciliation commission in the wake of the break-down of apartheid. An entire nation engaged in a wrenching exercise in forgiveness, and is the better for it now. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “First, people prayed for us,” which is Jesus’ second criteria for becoming a house of prayer.
Mark wants to change the way we see the world. He invites us to embrace each other in community, and then in action: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for one another. Forgiveness is part of being in community. Eugene Boring wrote, “If the Christian community is to be a ‘house of prayer for all nations,’ it must be a forgiving community, for only forgiveness makes it possible for people to live together.”
In a few minutes, we will all be invited to share a meal at Christ’s table. Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And what we are called to remember is that we gather in peaceful fellowship as a community, imperfect, not entirely whole, but a community nonetheless, as a house of prayer. And then anything is possible.