Mark chapter 11 contains two stories that test the faith of believers and seem to be out of character for Jesus.
The first is the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. It seems to be a fit of pique. The second is Jesus clearing the Temple of the moneychangers. This seems a strange act of violence from ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’.
How can we reconcile our vision of Jesus with these strange acts?
First we have to notice that they are linked. The story of the fig tree is wrapped around the story of the Temple clearing. The cursing comes first and the withering after.
Note that in Matthew’s gospel the cursing and withering both occur after the clearing and the withering occurs immediately. Luke doesn’t mention the fig tree at all, while John has the clearing much earlier in Jesus’ ministry – so perhaps this is a different occasion. Only Mark has the fig tree story wrapped around the Temple cleansing. This is a typical Marcan literary device; it tells us that the stories are related.
If they are related, what are they about?
The clue to this comes in the clearing story. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have the quotation, “a den of robbers”. I had always thought this to be a reference to the shady practices of the moneychangers and the sellers of sacrificial doves. In fact, in John’s Gospel, the Temple clearing has Jesus saying, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market?”
However, Mark has the “den of robbers” phrase, a direct quote from Jeremiah ch7 v 11. The context of the quote is Jeremiah preaching against false religion. He is complaining that the Israelites were trusting in deceptive words, “This is the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD.” He complains that they oppress the alien, the fatherless, the widow, and shed innocent blood, and follow other gods, that they steal, murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods and then come to the Temple and say, “We are safe – safe to do all these detestable things”. A den is not a market place, not a shop; it is a place of sanctuary, a hole to retreat into where you are completely safe. The Israelites were going to a place of safety that they weren’t entitled to. Like an ostrich who hides his head in the sand and thinks he can’t be seen because he can’t see anything.
In other words they are hypocrites; they pretend to be Holy and attend to the Temple rituals, but in their hearts they are evil and won’t change their ways. They are all show and no substance.
Just like the fig tree. Why should Jesus expect figs in April? Here we have to know some botany. Taqsh is an Arabic word that refers to an early crop of fig-like fruit on fig trees. Here’s a quotation from FF Bruce.
The problem is most satisfactorily cleared up in a discussion called "The Barren Fig Tree" published many years ago by W. M. Christie, a Church of Scotland minister in Palestine under the British mandatory regime. He pointed out first the time of year at which the incident is said to have occurred (if, as is probable, Jesus was crucified on April 6th, A.D. 30, the incident occurred during the first days of April). "Now," wrote Christie, "the facts connected with the fig tree are these. Toward the end of March the leaves begin to appear, and in about a week the foliage coating is complete. Coincident with this, and sometimes even before, there appears quite a crop of small knobs, not the real figs, but a kind of early forerunner. They grow to the size of green almonds, in which condition they are eaten by peasants and others when hungry. When they come to their own indefinite maturity they drop off." These precursors of the true fig are called taqsh in Palestinian Arabic. Their appearance is a harbinger of the fully formed appearance of the true fig some six weeks later. So, as Mark says, the time for figs had not yet come. But if the leaves appear without any taqsh, that is a sign that there will be no figs. Since Jesus found "nothing but leaves" - leaves without any taqsh- he knew that "it was an absolutely hopeless, fruitless fig tree" and said as much.
Just as the maple leaf is the symbol of Canada, the thistle of Scotland and the leak of Wales, so the fig tree is the symbol of Israel. Jesus was saying very plainly that Israel had not borne fruit. Just as judgment had come upon the fig tree so it had come on Israel.
How does this relate to the Temple? The Temple was the place of sacrifice. By overturning the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves Jesus was stopping the sacrifices. There is a phrase in Mark that is not in the other Gospels. In verse 16 we have “and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the Temple courts.” Even those who had already bought their doves or had managed to find an unblemished lamb outside were prevented from sacrificing them.
There is another quotation from the Old Testament in this passage. “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” It comes from Isaiah ch 56 v 7, but the principle enshrined there goes all the way back to Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple in I Kings ch 8 v 41: Solomon is praying to the LORD “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name…when he comes and prays towards this Temple, then hear from heaven and do whatever the foreigner asks of you so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you as do your own people Israel.”
In Isaiah Ch 56 the prophet speaking on behalf of the LORD says, “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say ‘the LORD will surely exclude me from his people’. Instead he says, “These I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer… for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” And the Jews had set up a market place in the Court of the Gentiles.
The Jews were fruitless because they lived hypocritical, godless lives, but also because, instead of trying to lead the Gentiles to God, they had made the very ritual of the Temple a barrier to their coming to Him.
The response of Jesus was to curse Israel (= the fig tree) and to block the daily sacrifice. Symbolically he was putting an end to the old covenant and proclaiming a new one.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest – a priest for ever in the order of Melchizedek – has offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.
The time is coming declares the LORD when I will make a new covenant … it will not be like the old covenant… because they did not remain faithful to my covenant and I turned away from them.
This is the covenant I will make… I will put my laws in their mind and write them on their hearts, I will be their God and they will be my people … they will all know me … for I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more..
By calling the covenant ‘new’ he made the first one obsolete; and whatever is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.
The message was plain to his hearers. When the chief priests and the teachers of the law heard him speaking they began looking for a way to kill him for they feared him.
Little did they know that this was the very way that the new covenant would be brought in and all the paraphernalia of the law and sacrifice finished with.