Holy Monday: Temple Tantrum

Mark 11:12-26

Have you ever been fooled by some false advertising? Have you ever been indignant at the unfair treatment of others? You are in good company.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that on the Monday of what we call Passion Week, Jesus began the day hungry. He then spots a fig tree that is some distance away, but after crossing that distance, he finds it only has pretty leaves but no fruit. Jesus then acts decisively, by cursing the tree. Curiously, Mark also notes that it was not the season for figs. So you might wonder: what did you expect to find, Jesus?

Next, Jesus enters the temple and finds there money changers and animal merchants. Then Jesus completely shuts down this exchange of animals. Mark is the only gospel that has the line where Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (Mark 12:16). Again we could ask: what did you expect to find Jesus? Keep in mind that the whole temple system required animal sacrifices. Many visitors would purchase animals on site, either out of preference or necessity, as there was always the possibility that if you had journeyed with your own sacrificial animal it could get lost, stolen, or “blemished” in transit. 

Was Jesus just having a bad day? Maybe he’s still hangry? Let’s look closer, there’s a powerful lesson here. The Gospel of Mark often sandwiches one story in between two halves of another story. And Mark tells us just a few lines after the “temple tantrum” that the disciples see that the fig tree is now withered, and Jesus uses it to teach on the power of prayer. But there’s one other place in Mark where the fig tree is used as an object lesson and it is also connected to the temple. 

Mark 13:1 As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” 2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” 3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” 5 Jesus said to them…28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.

Jesus says when you see leaves on the fig tree, it tells you something. Point of order: fig trees usually produce fruit and leaves at the same time, so it’s reasonable to assume a leafy tree would have figs on its branches too. The fig tree Jesus sees on the way to the temple shows itself to be an early bloomer but a false advertiser. And there are more productive fig trees-some trees in Israel are known to produce fruit early, and again several times throughout most of the year. Notably, Israel is described in the Old Testament as good fruit found in unlikely times and places. “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your ancestors, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.” (Hosea 9:10) and God expresses sadness when Israel is unfruitful “What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.” (Micah 7:1-2). 

God seems to have bigger hopes for what a fig tree is capable of “out of season” and Jesus has bigger ideas for what the temple is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be a “marketplace” (John 2:16) or a “den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11) but rather a “house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). But it seems those coming to temple to worship would be subjected to price-gouging and gate-keeping. 

A few decades after Jesus there is a story of Simeon son of Gamaliel (Yes that Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-39, 22:3) who is shocked when he learns the expensive going rate for doves which were the staple sacrificial animal for poor worshipers. Like Jesus, Simeon makes a grand protest in the temple court and the price of doves is reduced to one hundredth of its exploitative price. If the poorest worshipers were paying about a hundred times what a dove should be sold for, it’s no wonder Jesus would frame the temple as a place of robbers. 

Also in Jesus’ time the temple was segregated with a specific courtyard for gentiles, complete with signs that threatened foreigners with death if they went beyond these boundaries. Adding insult to injury, the temple courtyard that was crammed with the smelly animals and noisy exchange tables was, you guessed it, the gentile courtyard where Jesus clears out all the merchandise. What is shocking is not just what Jesus clears out of the temple but who Jesus lets in: the blind, lame, and children all of whom were traditionally excluded from the temple (Leviticus 21:16-21, 2 Samuel 5:8) and yet Jesus heals, teaches, and says the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the likes of them (Matthew 21:14-15, Luke 18:15-17). 

Even more shocking is how Jesus prophetically speaks about the temple being leveled which did come to pass about 40 year later. And yet Jesus remained steadfast in something “greater than the temple” (Matthew 12:6) in God’s resurrection power. “Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” (John 2:19-21). Jesus can drive out all the animals because he is offering his own body as the perfect sacrifice which makes all animal sacrifice obsolete. 

Jesus helps us not to be so easily fooled or taken advantage of. I can understand how one could get caught up in the sight of a great temple, enticed by a leafy fig tree, or swindled by very convincing merchants. But Jesus has our back. Jesus spent his final days in Jerusalem breaking down barriers, dismantling injustice, and also pointing to the greater things that God wants for us. Jesus not only makes a new way into the sacred temple for us, He makes us into a new sacred temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). We pray we will not participate in false promises, but that we would confront injustice and bear good fruit.