Mark 11:12-25

How Jesus Exposes Our Hearts

After a humble entry into Jerusalem seated on the back of a lowly donkey, Jesus now appears much more fierce in this next passage. He comes across a fig tree and curses it.  He goes into the temple and clears out the unscrupulous money-changers.   We considered last week the exposing gaze of Jesus in the temple (v.11) and this week through his sharp actions, we see this same theme continued and developed a bit more. Notice that Mark makes use of a chiasm, or a “sandwich” style, where he introduces one topic, switches to another, and then returns to the original topic. This A-B-A literary format occurs quite a bit in the Gospel of Mark.  This will serve as our outline as we consider this passage.

#1 A Fruitless Fig Tree

It’s the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry and he has apparently woken up hungry.  He sees a fig tree and we are given two details that the tree is in leaf  but that it was not the season for figs (v.13).  Jesus curses the tree saying within earshot of his disciples, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (v.14). Much has been made about this passage.  It is the last miracle (besides the resurrection!) recorded in Mark’s Gospel.  It is notable also that it is the only miracle of destruction performed by Jesus, unless you count the drowning of the herd of pigs in the country of the Gerasenes (c.f Mark 5).

Many have been perplexed by this passage.  How can Jesus curse an innocent tree particularly since it wasn’t even the season for figs? Can he really blame the tree?  Bertrand Russell in his famous essay “Why I am Not Christian” cites this passage as one of the reasons for his unbelief.  For Russell this passage exemplifies the “moral problem” of following Christ and he would therefore place “Buddha and Socrates above Him” for this display of “vindictive fury” (Why I Am Not A Christian).

These objections by Russell and others need not trouble us.  But how should we understand this passage?  First, understand that this is an enacted parable.  This event didn’t come about simply because Jesus was hungry (v.12) because certainly the one who fasted in the desert for 40 days could have gone without food here.  What is going on is that rather than speak a parable, Jesus, in the fashion of the Old Testament prophets before him, acted it out. The fig tree was a common symbol used in the Old Testament representing Israel (c.f. Hosea 9:10, Micah 7:1, Jeremiah 8:13, 29:17).  This is a parable of judgment on fruitless Israel.

Secondly, while it was not the season for figs, we are told that the tree was in leaf (v.13).  This is an important detail that we shouldn’t miss. Those who know a lot more about plants than me explain that before there are mature figs to eat in the season for figs, there are unripe figs (known in Hebrew as paggim) which are edible and appear when the tree is in leaf.  Therefore, Bible commentator James Edwards paraphrases this verse in this way: “It was, of course, not the season for figs, but it was for paggim” (Pillar NT Commentary on James, p.340).

Jesus examines the fig tree expecting to find some evidence of fruit but finds nothing, and therefore rightly curses it.

 

#2 A Fruitless Temple

Mark moves the narrative from the fruitless fig tree to the fruitless temple.  Like the fig tree, the temple was in leaf.  From a distance the temple looked impressive.  Lots of people.  Lots of activity.   But when Jesus looked a little closer, he saw no fruit.   Instead he likely saw the unfair business practices of the money-changersAll this likely took place in the Court of the Gentiles which meant there was no space for the Gentiles to worship.   Ancient Jewish historian Josephus gives us some sense of the scale of this operation.  He writes that in the year AD 66, the year the temple construction was finally completed, there were 256,500lambs sacrificed for Passover (War of the Jews, 6.9.3).  That’s a lot of  activity taking place in the temple! So Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons (v.15).  He explains his actions by quoting two Old Testament verses, Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11,Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?  But you have made it a den of robbers.

In response the chief priests and the scribesbegan to plot a way to destroy him(v.18).  The crowd on the way into Jerusalem was ready to crown him and here the religious leaders are ready to kill him.  This is how it goes with Jesus.  There is no middle ground in the gospel accounts.  People either accepted the claims he made and were prepared to crown him as king or they rejected him and sought to kill him.

 

#3 A Fruitful Faith

Mark now returns to the subject of the fig tree completing the “sandwich” structure.  Jesus’ disciples discover that the fig tree is withered away to its roots (v.20).  Again because of the structure we are invited to make connections between the clearing the temple and the withering of the fig tree.  This is helpful because the preceding passage is often referred to as the “cleansing of the temple,” but that is a bit misleading.  Jesus does not intend to cleanse the temple, he intends to destroy the temple.  In the same way the fig tree was not cleansed but rather destroyed all the way down to its roots.  In the proceeding passages in Mark, we will hear more from Jesus on this topic of the coming destruction of the temple.  And the summary is this: Jesus intends to replace the temple not restore the temple.

Jesus uses this parable, which served earlier as an image of judgment, to teach his disciples something about the power of faith.  He says you will bear much fruit in your lives, like casting mountains into the sea, if you have faith in God  (v.22).  He repeats this again when he says whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (v.24).  Jesus is saying, Don’t be like the fruitless fig tree or like fruitless Israel with their dead religion.  You should place your faith in God and through me you will move mountains, you will be able to forgive others, whatever you ask in faith, you will have.

In this way this passage is both a warning of something to avoid and encouragement of something to seek.

Discussion Questions

  1. Explain what is going on with the cursing of the fig tree.  Why do you think Jesus condemns the fig tree?
  2. What lesson do you think Jesus’ disciples were supposed to learn this incident?
  3. The leaves of the fig tree looked good but masked the fact that there was no fruit. Are there areas in your life that look good but aren’t producing the fruit that God desires?
  4. Jesus returned to temple (v.15).  Describe what was going on in the temple.
  5. Why was Jesus upset?
  6. How did Jesus explain his actions in verse 17?
  7. How did the religious leaders respond to Jesus?  Why do think they had this response?
  8. Mark returns in verse 20 to 25 to the topic of the fig tree.  What is the connection between the cursing of the fig tree and the clearing of the temple?
  9. Jesus uses the fig tree to teach his disciples about fruitfulness.  What does he say?  Which of these lessons do you most need to apply to your life?
  10. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?
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