This homily is based on the scripture from Mark 11:12-19 and the second chapter of the book The Last Week, by Crosson and Borg.
On Sunday, Jesus has a royal like parade that mocks the very real royal, militaristic parade that Rome is holding on the other side of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ parade, there are no horses, only a donkey, no army with weapons of war in sight, but only poor peasants to greet him. His parade makes a statement about the type of Kingdom that he is there to announce. At the end of that parade he stops in at the temple to look around. Seeing as how it is late, he decides to do nothing yet and instead finds a place to sleep outside of Jerusalem in Bethany.
The next morning, Monday, bright and early he heads out to the temple again, but is sidetracked by a fig tree. It is a sorry looking fig tree, with no figs to eat on it. A very hungry Jesus is irritated by this. Fig trees that bear no fruit are worthless. This is their only purpose and he curses the fig tree. At the end of our reading, he passes by this fig tree again and it is withered and dead.
This brief, odd, encounter with a fruit tree is not meant to show us how human Jesus is, “Look, even he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes.” It bookends the story of the temple as a lesson of what will happen to the temple, if it doesn’t start bearing fruit. Jesus is not just predicting the temple will wither and die, he is cursing it, willing it to die because it is not serving it’s purpose. A temple that bears no fruit is worthless. This is not the story of Jesus cleansing the temple as it is possibly called, but of Jesus’ cursing the temple.
The authors’ of The Last Week, believe there has been a lot of bad Christian preaching and teaching about what happens in the temple on Monday of Jesus last week. They make the case that Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple has nothing to do with a replacement of Judaism by a new and improved religion, Christianity. Similarly, it is not about replacing an old style worship with sacrifices and priests with a better worship that looks like our churches today. This can be a barn burner of a sermon, because everyone likes to be on the winning team, but it is not what is going on.
Nor, is the point a narrow one, that the temple is being abused and misused by dove salesman and bankers. This preaches good, too. I should know I have preached it several times myself. “We should keep the church focused on worshipping God. When we get our Welcome Center’s full with stuff for sale like books, shirts and upcoming dinners, we are losing that focus.”
This may be a grumble that many of you have had as you have driven home from Sunday worship at Messiah, but it is likely not the problem that Jesus had that day. The money changers and dove salesman had to be there because faithful Jews who literally travelled from around the known world to be there that week of Passover, needed the money changer in order to make an offering in a currency that did not bear a graven image, like the Roman money did. They needed the dove salesman to make a pleasing sacrifice to God as a thankful gift for the love and blessing they had received. This sort of commerce was only allowed in the outer courtyard, which is where Jesus found them. The guys working the courtyard that day may or may not have been dishonest, but they were not what lit Jesus’ fuse.
And finally, the authors make the case that this is not a story passed down to make clear to us the humanity of Jesus. “See, he is just like us, he gets irritable when he is hungry and when under stress, like someone would be who is about to die, he loses his cool.” I admit to preaching that, too.
Jesus curses the temple, because the worship had lost touch with her purpose. The temple was to be a place of hope, where ordinary people would encounter God as equals with their brothers and sisters made in God’s image. By the time of Jesus, the temple had become something else entirely. It was not the portal to where God hoped God’s kingdom would begin. It had become instead just another part of the Kingdom of Man, a kingdom that always seeks to control God’s people and deny them justice.
First Herod then Rome had made the temple and the priests who ran it bureaucrats for their government. They were paid lavishly to keep the offering plates full and the people quiet. The Chief Priest and their assistants were no longer from the tribe of Levi, a dedicated tribe of Israel forever gifted to be in service to the God’s temple. Now, they came from one of four aristocratic families and were given their titles and positions of power by the government. History records all sorts of immoral actions by these families and priests in order to gain titles, power and wealth. The governor Pontius Pilate relied on Chief Priest Caiaphas to provide whatever taxes could be squeezed out of the Jewish peasants so more could come to Rome’s coffers and to stamp out quickly and brutally dissatisfaction with Roman rule.
A few decades before Jesus was executed a rabbi convinced his followers to cut down the royal symbol of Rome that King Herod had put over one of the gates of the temple. This symbol of Roman rule had no place in God’s temple where God ruled. The followers of the rabbi were caught. Forty of them were burned alive in front of King Herod. The others were handed over to Rome to be executed. This story alone sums up the state of the temple in the day of Jesus.
Jesus is not symbolically cleansing the temple of dishonest merchants. He is symbolically destroying the temple because it has been thoroughly corrupted. It is a fig tree that bears no fruit. As he is doing so, he quotes Jeremiah 7:5-11. Listen to God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah about his hope for the temple where his presence was promised.
“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.
And later Jeremiah writes in the voice of God that the temple is not carrying out this hope. And this is the cry of God.
Has this house which has been called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
The prophet Jeremiah wept over the temple in his day, because they were more worried about petty politics and collecting money than serving the lost and the least. In countless Old Testament scripture that the author’s sight God rejects worship from people that don’t care for justice. Not once in scripture does God reject a people’s justice because of our lack of care for worship. For God, being just with our neighbor is as important as right worship. The temple that Jesus encountered had become a cynical place where the leaders wrongly believed that God could be satisfied with rituals and sacrifices while they abused God’s people. The fruit from the temple was not justice. It needed to be torn down.
The implications are clear for us, today. Faithful, beautiful, right worship of God can never be divorced of our faithful, loving care for our neighbor. The two are intertwined completely. What makes this place holy is not the cross, the sacred vessels, the wonderful instruments, the embroidered paraments or flickering candles. What makes this place holy, full of God’s presence, are God’s people. Whether in here worshiping next to us, or out there living next to us, God’s people must be treated with respect, compassion and love. If that is not the fruit of our worship at Messiah, than Messiah will wither and die just like that fig tree. Amen