Tuesday, August 27, 2019

According to Mark: Lacking Fruit

Last week, we saw a major shift as Jesus turned toward Jerusalem and spelled out the reason for His coming, “to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In Mark 11, He reaches the city and begins the final week of His ministry, which will be the subject of the remainder of the gospel. Today, we will be looking at this chapter and the first few verses of Chapter 12.

The Triumphal Entry

Jesus’ actual arrival in Jerusalem is remarkable enough for the evangelist to cover it in Mark 11:1–11. Mark’s way of covering it is also worthy of taking some time to discuss. There is a great deal of significance in the fact that Jesus enters the city while riding on a colt. But Mark does not actually spell it out as we find in Matt. 21:1–9. Mark merely points out the fact that Jesus did it, not why.

What we know from Matthew is that it was in fulfillment of OT prophecy. Zech. 9:9 says,

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem!
Look, your King is coming to you;
he is righteous and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Even though Mark does not reference this, seeming to prefer to let the event speak for itself, the messianic implications are pretty obvious. Jesus entered Jerusalem as more than just a worshipper, or even as a prophet. He entered as its King. The fact that He set it up is proof of His self-perception. It was a purposeful identification, one made to be noticed and responded to. As we see here, many people did so favorably. As we are about to see, however, others were less thrilled by the prospect that the Messiah had come.

The Curses of Jesus

What follows in Mark 11:12–25 is possibly one of the most difficult passages for Christians in the Bible. Why does Jesus curse a tree? Why is His last miracle in the gospel His first and only destructive one? And why does it feel so arbitrary?

Beginning to understand it requires first recognizing a feature we have seen plenty of times previously in Mark. This whole section is one of his “sandwiches,” in which a story is begun, interrupted for another, and then completed. In every case, these stories interpret each other. So to figure out why Jesus cursed the fig tree, we need to see the similarity between it and His throwing out those doing business in the Temple.

Of course, that hardly makes it easier. The cleansing of the Temple is hard to explain, too. The Lord at least provides commentary in the form of quotations from Is. 56:7 and Jer. 7:11. The money changers and the animal sellers were providing a necessary service. Jews came from all over the world to worship at the Temple for Passover. They could hardly bring sacrifices with them, and they could not use their currencies to pay the tax required of all Jewish men. So the problem was not what the merchants were doing, but where they were doing it. The Temple was dedicated to God’s service, not to profit. They were defiling it, and they did so with the blessing of the chief priests. Those entrusted with safeguarding the things of God were treating them with contempt.

In spite of Jesus making a scene over this, it was not enough of one to get Him arrested right then and there. His disruption did not do any permanent damage to business, and He does not seem to have intended it to. He was not there to seize the Temple. Rather, He was giving a sign. He was showing that it, and the politco-religious establishment it represented, had failed. It needed to be cleared out, swept away, and replaced with something new. In that way, then, this is an extension of Jesus’ teaching on new wine in new wineskins from Mark 2:22.

Ok, so let’s go back to the fig tree and look at it through that lens. The thing that makes Jesus approach it in the first place is the fact that it has leaves. Though, as Mark notes, it was not the season for figs, fig trees actually have two seasons. The true, mature fruit comes out in the fall. But in the spring, there are edible (if not exactly tasty) buds that can come out at about the same time that the leaves grow. So Jesus is not being arbitrary by looking for something to eat. The appearances were there, but they failed of their promise.

We might ask, then, why would Jesus become angry at an inanimate object with no power to do anything about its failure? That is kind of the wrong question, though. We’d do better to really focus on the fact that the tree is unthinking and unfeeling. It is incapable of suffering. We think too much of it if we feel bad for it. Jesus was not looking to harm it, but to use it. It served as an object lesson. And as the Lord of nature, He has every right to use His creation as He sees fit.

As for the lesson, that is determined by the interrupting story from vv. 15–19. Like the tree, the Temple had failed of its promise. There is an appearance of religiosity, but the chief priests and other authorities are producing no spiritual fruit in accordance with the desire of the Lord. As a result, it is about to be emptied out so that true devotion can be looked for elsewhere. In plainer language, the Church of believers in Christ is going to replace the Temple as the center of true worship.

Praying in Faith

That is the backdrop for how this section finishes since otherwise, it would be difficult to figure out why Jesus transitions to teaching about the power of prayer. Remember, the point is that the Temple had failed as a house of prayer. Under the new system, location will no longer be considered the source of efficacy when bringing requests to God. Instead, it will be faith in Christ.

Along with that, we need to be careful to not treat this teaching flippantly. Jesus is not promising us that God will be a magic genie. We cannot expect to have wishes granted when we ask for selfish desires that are contrary to God’s will. Nor can we have a limited view. If the mountain is thrown into the sea one spoonful at a time, the prayer has still been answered. The point is that we need to believe in God, desire what He desires, and look to Him for provision. We can know we have it because of what Christ has done, not because we have a special building.

The Authority of Jesus

The following day, Jesus returns to the Temple and is directly confronted by the highest authorities in Judaism. We see them listed in Mark 11:27 as “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.” They are, respectively, the overseers of the rituals of Judaism, the most skilled experts in the Law of Moses, and the richest and most influential aristocrats of the Jews. Together, the 70 greatest of them comprised the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jewish life. While there is little chance all of them were present here, it is clear that they were acting as representatives and with the authority of the council. They were bringing their full force to bear to put this young preacher in His place.

So what would you do if the Pope, Donald Trump, and Bill Gates walked up to you and angrily demanded to know what gave you the right to tell them what to do? That kind of sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it is really more an example of the situation in which Jesus found Himself. We want to grasp just how powerful these people were. I know I would be intimidated. That’s what makes Jesus’ response so incredible. Not only is He unfazed, refusing to dignify their question. He actually turns it around on them and leaves them tripping over their tongues looking for what to say.

I also find it interesting that the answer to their question is actually contained in His. If they had been able to realize that John’s authority had come from God, then they also would have seen that Jesus was the one for whom John had prepared the way. They would have known that Jesus had come with the mandate of heaven. The fact that they had to ask, and then that they could not answer, proved that they were unfit to lead. If they were so spiritually blind, how could they be expected to help others see?

Unfruitful Workers

They see something, though. While still speaking with them, Jesus tells another of His parables. What makes this one unique is that it was not intended to obscure meaning. Instead, it was to have an obvious application. Once understood, the listeners could either respond with contrition or indignation. But they know they are being talked about.

Not everyone today will, though, so I want to explain the elements just to be sure. By talking about a vineyard with a fence, a winepress, and a watchtower, Jesus was making an allusion to Is. 5:1–7 that His audience would not have been able to miss. In that passage, it is clear the owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard, meanwhile, is God’s people.

Those are the similarities, but Jesus introduces new elements by bringing other characters into the story. If the vineyard is the people, then the farmers are those who are meant to oversee them. That would be the priests, scribes, and elders. The servants sent to deliver the owner’s messages and receive His due are the prophets. The Son, of course, is Jesus. And the “others” to whom the vineyard will be given are the apostles, those who will be the leaders in the new order of things.

The parable, therefore, provides a brief descriptive history of Israel. God had intended for them to provide a blessing, but consistent failures in leadership had made them unprofitable. Over and over, God sent prophets to point out these failures and draw the people back to God’s word. Just as frequently, however, the prophets were ignored, persecuted, and murdered. John was the last example of this, and speaking of him was what brought Jesus to give this parable in the first place. Finally, God sent His Son. It was one last opportunity for the Chosen People to turn from their faithlessness and respond to truth. Instead of taking it, the religious leaders thought of it as a chance to escape responsibility once and for all. Of course, it only meant disaster. Their plans would come to nothing, true worship would be established in the community that worshiped Christ, and the Temple and all its privileges would be lost in a few short years when the Romans destroyed it.

It’s interesting to note how much of this story the council members understood, and how much they didn’t. They knew Jesus was talking about them and their failures. They knew He was threatening them with the loss of everything they had. They even knew He was calling Himself the Son of God. But the one thing they didn’t seem to notice was that He predicted their reaction. Rather than repent, they were infuriated and went out to plot His destruction. In so doing, they merely fulfilled His words. Killing Him was only going to result in destroying themselves.

Well, that would not be the only result. It would also bring about the fulfillment of the psalmist’s prophecy from Ps. 118:22–23. Their rejection of the Messiah was the means by which God accomplished His ultimate glorification and the salvation of mankind. They would bring Christ to His lowest, enabling His elevation to the highest. Jesus spelled this all out for them. They were just too angry to catch that part, and it would leave them on the outside looking in.

We’ll stop there for now, but the conflict will continue when we move forward with Mark 12. The Temple leaders, blinded by rage, are going to try to embarrass Jesus. Not satisfied with how poorly that has already worked out for them, they are only going to make it worse. We want to have this context in mind when we get there.

As for today’s passage, there are a few things we want to take away. First, I hate to say the obvious, but history has shown that stories like this can lead to a misplaced hatred. Mark is not giving us carte blanche for antisemitism by pointing out the failures of Judaism. What we want to focus on is the new thing that God has done in Christ. Worship is not tied to a place, but to faith in a person. If we have that faith, we can do great things. If we don’t, we can expect trouble. The king has come. The only proper response is to sing,

 Hosanna in the highest heaven!

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