Mark 11 (link) moves us from the general life and ministry of Jesus and into the last week of His life. We open up with the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday and start progressing through the events that lead to the arrest, trial, and the Cross.
What do we get in this week? Much of the focus for this chapter tends to fall on the first section, called the Triumphal Entry. This is where Jesus enters Jerusalem to the acclaim of many, riding on a donkey, and they wave palm branches. He then goes out to Bethany, from which He is essentially commuting for the week.
The real center of this chapter is not the Triumphal Entry, though. It's the narrative descriptions of Jesus exercising His authority in all matters. Let's take a look at those:
First: well, there's the "Go get a donkey" in the opening story. The simple statement to bystanders of "The Lord has need of it" takes care of any accusations of Grand Theft Beast of Burden, and on they go. Consider how you would feel if someone showed up, started to crank your new car and just said "The Lord has need of it" before driving away. You'd call the police, wouldn't you? (And, likely, the men with the nice jacket and the padded cell for the guy.)
However, that simple spoken phrase expresses Jesus' authority, and the donkey is freely allowed to Him.
The next day, as Jesus is leaving Bethany, He takes a look at a fig tree and finds no figs. The tree is green and leafy, but there is nothing edible present. Jesus then performs the only recorded destruction in the Gospels: the tree is cursed. That evening, the disciples notice on the way back to Bethany that the tree has withered. At the word of Jesus, a fully green tree turns to withering firewood. We'll spend some more time on this in the nerd note.
The big moment of this section comes when Jesus drives the moneychangers and merchants from the Temple. This is the image of Jesus that many people want to overlook. Certainly there is much appreciation for His condemnation of those who turn worship into a business, but we get very, very uncomfortable with Angry Jesus in this passage.
He does not walk up and calmly suggest the moneychangers leave or recommend alternate places to practice business. Neither is He gentle in speech: the accusation that the Temple has been turned to a den of thieves is calling the merchants thieves. Don't pretend that this is not a personal, direct, attack on them. If I called your house a "den of thieves" you would feel insulted.
Of course, if your house was filled with stuff that you took from others under the threat of force or by deception, you would feel insulted but the statement would be true. In this case, that's the fact as well: these men are effectively stealing, as they are deceiving and coercing funds from innocent worship participants.
Yet He is simply exercising His authority at this point. The Temple was intended to be the center-point of the worship of God on earth at the time, and yet it had become the center of man-driven organization. There were business decisions intruding into spiritual behaviors and it was all being allowed by those who should have been guarding righteousness.
So Jesus overturns their tables and drives out those who are distracting and wrongly profiting from worship. He then also refuses to answer the chief priests and scribes who questioned Him about it.
My fellow believers, we need to understand something about the Lord Jesus Christ that this passage should make quite clear: that "Lord" that we tend to address Jesus with? That's not there just to add a word. That is about His authority, His rule over His people.
It is a compassionate rule, but compassion sometimes requires strong action. We must be cautious, especially anyone who stands as a leader of those who worship Christ. He expects that you will allow Him to exercise authority, not you. He expects that you will not stand between the hearts drawn to Him and the One who is drawing them.
It is a warning worth considering for individual churches and for religious structures as a whole. For my fellow Southern Baptists, it's something to consider as many of our "great lights" will meet in New Orleans. Are we letting business come between us and serving Christ? Do we allow our debates and debacles to build obstacles between people and the God who saves them?
Woe be unto us if we do. Not just on an earthly level or even a denominational survival level, but on the level of damaging our relationship with Jesus.
Today's Nerd Note: Back to the fig tree: some people, like Bertrand Russell, found so much fault in this incident that they discard either the story or Jesus. Russell, generally, discarded Jesus. After all, if God Incarnate was so temperamental as to curse and destroy a tree for not having fruit out of season, what kind of God are we dealing with?
First issue: Interestingly, to discard Jesus (and theism, generally) over this story is somewhat contradictory. Here is a man, claiming to be God, that can kill a tree in a day with a sentence. There is power there, at the very least. While you may question the use of the power, there is another question: if it was not right, would it have happened? In this, we have an event that shows Jesus' divine nature, whether we like it or not.
Second issue: Fig trees, true, do not have mature figs until August-October. However, prior to sprouting leaves, the immature buds that will become figs sprout on the trees. By March-April, these buds are edible immature figs, called paqqim. It appears, based on my reading, that these should be in place before the leaves grow. Finding a tree in full leaf with nothing edible means it's a tree that will produce no fruit that year. It has nothing immature but edible, and will have nothing. So the curse is deserved.
Third issue: There is a measure of symbolism. The tree story bookends the cleansing of the Temple. The Temple is like the tree. It has full leaves, but what fruit does it have? At the time, none, for it is filled with robbers and thieves. The literal event echoes the point.
Finally: everything God does is good. Not because He meets the human standard of good, but because the human standard of good should be "anything that is what God would do, based on what God has done and has said." If God does it, it's good. If Jesus cursed a tree and it died, that action was good. When we read Scripture, what God does is good, whether or not we like it.