A Fig Tree, A Temple, and A Colt- Finding Jesus at the Gates of Jerusalem

And just as Bartimaeus picks himself up and begins to “follow him (Jesus) on the way”, we finally arrive in Jerusalem- the Gospel Way, the Way of God, appears to be reaching its climatic moment.

And it, this Gospel Way, arrives on a colt, borrowed from some unlikely locals and comes echoed in the streets by the words of an impoverished people.

“Hosanna!” they shout. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
– Mark 11:9-10

Having recently finished N.T. Wright’s insightful “The Day the Revolution Began”, I find myself paying much more heed to the context of these words as the hopeful expression of an expectant Jewish culture. It is, after all, from out of this hopeful expression that we find the hope of Jesus being expressed to the world. And it is out of this hopeful expression that we can also make sense of just how unsettling and confusing it would have been for them to hear “the Son of Man will delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over the Gentiles.”

The Power of The Temple Text
The first place we find Jesus going when he arrives in Jerusalem is to the temple (11:11), and the first thing we find Jesus doing in Jerusalem is “overturning” life in the temple.

One does not need to look far to recognize the importance of the temple in the ministry of Jesus, and throughout Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus moving in and out of the temple in both physical and symbolic reference.

In Jewish culture the temple was incredibly important. N.T. Wright describes it like this:

“When Solomon built the Temple and dedicated it with great pomp, splendor, and the sacrifice of thousands of animals, the divine Glory did indeed come to dwell in it. The magnificent scene is described in 1 Kings 8, which comments that the priests were unable to stand before the glorious divine Presence (vs. 11). This description resonates with what happened when the tabernacle was constructed and dedicated in the wilderness (Exod. 40). The creator of the world had decided to take up residence in this building in fulfillment of the promises made to this royal house. Here was the spot where heaven touched earth, where a “little world” came into being as a sign of the ultimate intention that the divine Glory would fill the whole earth (Ps. 72:19).”
-Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, pages 111-112

Wright goes on to say in this same section that, “the building remained the focus of prayer, sacrifice, and pilgrimage for the great festivals up to the time when the Babylonians destroyed it in 587 B.C.”, and even after it was rebuilt (and ultimately destroyed once again), Wright reflects that even still, “centuries later” the “rabbis looked back on this (second temple period) and “produced a list, with a sense of gloomy resignation, of all the ways in which the Second Temple was deficient in comparison with the First Tempel”, namely in the absence of the presence of God Himself.

“To these questions the New Testament writers offer an answer that is so explosive, so unexpected, so revolutionary, that it has remained entirely off the radar for most modern readers, including modern Christian readers… the moment when that Glory is fully unveiled is the moment when Jesus is crucified.” (Wright, page 113)

It is in the light (and the shadows) of the temple and temple life that we find the history of the Israelites being shaped, not only in the telling and retelling of their central temple texts- including the great creation narratives, the exile and Passover, and God’s promise being made visual in the picture of the promised land- but also by producing a fervent longing in the face of the shadows- namely the persistent story of exile that Wright considers continuing today. And so, as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, we find Him heading straight to the place of this divine presence, the dwelling place of the most high that once (and still) reflected the means of God dwelling in their midst… and he overturns it. By doing this Jesus realigns our sights away from the state of this gloomy resignation that Wright has pointed out, and towards the reality and accomplishment of His death and Resurrection. The revolution, to borrow from Wright, is about to begin.

And here is where we arrive at the heart of this revolutionary message. As Jesus overturns the temple, he also goes on to speak to the temples (un)foreseen future. “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” The state of exile, that frustrating state of sin in the world, persists. But hope, the resurrection hope that formed out of the prophets and their Messianic expectation, will come from an unexpected place, from the foot of a cross. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone!” (12:10) Jesus declares He is the embodiment of the temple text, written on the hearts of the people and bringing life to an ancient promise that is intended to be shared with the world.

The Power of the Kingdom
“Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our Father David”

In chapter 12 Jesus famously aligns the kingdom of David towards the Kingdom of David’s Lord. Where David’s kingdom remained mournfully incomplete, Jesus, this Jewish “Son of Man” being declared to be the divine Son of God, has arrived in the flesh to attend to their present condition; to do what was necessary to bring to fruition the Abrahamic covenant promise of a new Kingdom made for “all nations”, and the expected restoration of the whole created world. Only, as He enters through the gates of Jerusalem, this King would come to demonstrate the necessary Way of suffering and the Cross as the Way of bringing this to fruition. At the foot of the Cross Jesus demonstrates what it means to bring God’s immense love to all people- to become a servant of all, to become the least so that the least become first. To share in the exile so as to free the people from exile.

A Fig Tree and It’s Fruit
As Jesus and the disciples are making their way from Bethany to Jerusalem, they pass by a fig tree. Seeing that the tree was bearing no fruit (before they were in season, these trees would spring leaves along with the early buds, thus the first fruits would stand as the “sign” of the full fruit that was still come), Jesus curses the tree, declaring that it will never bear fruit again.

Passing by it again the next morning, the disciples (Peter) note that the tree leaves were now fully withered away. This leads Jesus to connect the tree to an important lesson about what it means to have faith in the Way of Jesus, the Way of the Cross. On the surface, the passage carries the obvious weight of judgment. Jesus causes the tree to wither and become useless. It has been judged for its lack of fruit. But underneath the surface of this judgment, I think the imagery of the tree bears much hope, and as readers, I believe we can see this hope more clearly by considering this passage in light of the “temple” themes that surround it.

The tree lacks the first fruits that would indicate it will eventually be fruitful. So Jesus curses it. In Chapter 13, Jesus walks through the temple, sees the separation of Jew and Gentile, and declares it equally “cursed to destruction”. If we see these two images as connected, the withering of the tree emerges as a symbol of the way in which Jesus is establishing Himself as the new (raised) temple. What Jesus is doing in overturning the temple is aligning Himself with the exile of the people and raising to life the work of God’s Kingdom in an unexpected and much more powerful way than they had experienced before. He is the new temple being raised again to new (and expected) life, and this temple, this person of Jesus, will be the heart of a new Kingdom being established for all nations and all peoples, a king coming by way of a donkey, by way of the Cross and the Resurrection of the new temple itself.

 

What is striking is the way Jesus uses this image to speak of faith in terms of an already/not yet dichotomy. As they look and consider the fig tree, they are called to consider what it means to have faith in the here and the now. “Have faith in God”, it says. Or, have faith in what God is doing and is promising to do. The fig tree could only ever be the first fruit of what is to come. Jesus is the full fruit. Jesus will tear down the old temple and raise it up anew. This is what it is to believe that “all things are possible”, to believe that Jesus is who He says He is, and for us as modern day readers to believe that He will one day turn the first fruits, along with the whole of the created order, into a promised restoration.

Jesus goes on in 13:28 to revisit the picture of the fig tree, noting that the leaves on the fig tree signify spring, which means that summer is near. The Cross looms in the shadows, but the day of Resurrection is near. But look and see, even now Jesus stands in front of them in full view. Jesus is here, and He will come again. So let us live into His Way with fervor and with passion and conviction. Let us believe not just that this promise will come, but believe that we have already received this new life in the person of Christ Jesus in the here and now. This is what it means to have faith. And, as chapter 11 reminds us, the way we live this kind of faith out is by praying. And the way we pray is by forgiving. And so we have faith by learning to live into the forgiven and the forgiving life.

A Prayer for all Nations
If ever there was any doubt about what Jesus was doing on the Cross, he lays it out clearly in 11:17.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Just as Jesus used the fig tree to point us to the temple, Jesus points to the injustice that the current temple structure was inflicting on the people in its outer courts- the Jewish/Gentile divide. Samaritans, who were recognized as the result of Jewish people mixing with non-Jewish people during the exile- half-breeds, along with other gentile believers and seekers who did not share Jewish origins, were isolated to the outer court surrounding the temple. As an added feature of this time period, it was nearing the Passover Feast, a major Jewish celebration that would have drawn quite a crowd of gentile pilgrims from all over. The city at this time knew that these pilgrims would need an appropriate animal that met the requirements for sacrifice, and so conveniently set up vendors to sell these and other necessities in the outer court along with offering currency that they could use to pay the necessary “temple tax”. So, along with the fact that this outer court was a public area used sometimes as a shortcut or pathway to get into the city from the Mount of Olives (a main road), it would have been filled with people who were not otherwise allowed inside the temple itself.

So when Jesus declares His house to be a house for all nations, what He is overturning is the injustice that the current temple structure was enacting on the gentile world. Matthew replaces “all nations” with an even more specific term- the blind, the lame and the outcasts. And what is interesting about this passage is that Jesus is quoting, as He so often does, from the Jewish scriptures. In other words, as the “now” dwelling place of the most-High, Jesus is simply speaking to what God has been up to all along- raising up a people for the sake of the world as He has been doing through the fathers, kings, and the prophets. Jesus is realigning their vision away from themselves and towards the greater good of all. This is what He has come to bring to completion. This is why prayer and forgiveness are so intimately linked. We pray so that God can broaden our vision of how far His love reaches in our world. As has already been asked elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, who can be saved? With man this notion of salvation is impossible. With God all things are possible. And so we are called to hope for the impossible to be made possible.

In the life of the whole created order, in the covenant made with Abraham and Noah, in Moses and all of the Kings and prophets that proceed from him in the story of Israel and Judah, we find this same message ringing loud and clear. “My house will be a house for all nations.” In the book of Jeremiah, we find a picture of an exiled community standing at the brink of a new age, a moment in which God’s covenant promise is beginning to unveil Jesus as the hope for the world. In Ezekiel, a prophet who was speaking to the nation of Israel at the same time as Jeremiah, it uses another image of a tree in 17:22 to reflect this unveiling:

“I myself will take a branch from the lofty top of a cedar and set it out, plant it on a high and lofty mountain… and in doing that all trees of the field shall know that I am the lord. I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green one and make the dry tree flourish… I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.”

The focus here is on “I will, I will”. And here is the thing. In the picture that Jesus offers us in the fig tree in the Gospel of Mark, the call is to have faith in what Jesus is doing and will do, the same kind of faith Jeremiah called the exiled people of Judah to have in 24:1-10, where we find the prophet using the same metaphor of a fig to speak to what God will do in raising up a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah (31:31). This is to be a new covenant in which the house, the dwelling place of God, the new temple-Jesus- now takes resident in the heart (31:34) rather than a building. The call in Mark is then to participate in what Jesus is doing by praying and forgiving and living, just as the call in Jeremiah was to take root in this exiled land and to grow a family, get jobs and live life as a people set apart to be a witness to the world and a life that is being restored to its original purpose.

The very mention of a fig tree in scripture would have indicated in Jewish understanding that the nation of Israel, or the temple, was in view. Likewise, whenever the nation of Israel or the order of the temple was in view, usually we find a leader, a prophet, a King being sent to the city gate to echo this new covenant promise. This is where we find Jeremiah in chapter 7, standing at the gate of the Lord’s house, echoing another piece of this passage in Mark as he calls the people to consider,

“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jeremiah 7:11)

This same house in which they stand chanting “This is God’s temple, this is God’s temple, this is God’s temple” (7:4) is also being used to execute injustice in the way of stealing, suppressing the foreigner and the traveller (the outer courts), oppressing the fatherless and the widow, and shedding innocent blood (murder) on its steps (7:5-9). This sounds more like “this is my temple, this is my temple, this is my temple”, not a temple for all nations, for all peoples.

And so now Jesus stands on these same steps, saying “I am the temple, I am the temple, I am the temple”, a temple for all nations, echoing these same words in Jeremiah as if to say, “look and see”, the time has come for me to “plant and not uproot”, to “give them a heart to know that I am the Lord and they shall be my people and I will be their God.” They (God’s people) “will return” with a whole heart, with a restored heart (24:4-7).

And it is this truth that should cause us to join in singing “Hosanna in the highest” along with those who lined the streets of Jerusalem in hopeful expectation of what was to come. And now, as Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday approaches, let us keep our eyes open for the unexpected.

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