Monday, May 25, 2020

Mark 11 11-26

and Jesus entered into Jerusalem,
and into the temple:
and when he had looked round about upon all things
and now the eventide was come
he went out unto Bethany with the twelve

Jesus makes a big, pointed, dramatic entry to Jerusalem. He heads for the temple. It is the first thing he does. It’s a big deal. The temple is where God lives.

But nothing happens. He just looks round. And then heads back to Bethany with his inner circle.

Bethany has now taken the place of Capernaum. It is where Jesus is staying: a temporary home, a mile or so from Jerusalem. I've heard lots of sentimental sermons about the place; but Mark doesn't say anything about it. He just takes it for granted. He doesn't even say who Jesus is staying with.

QUESTION: Is Jesus still on his donkey, or as he sent it back to Bethphage with a thank you note? Are the rest of his entourage — the generality of students and hangers-on — also lodging at Bethany? Or do they stay in the city?

and on the morrow,
when they were come from Bethany
he was hungry
and seeing a fig tree afar off
having leaves
he came,
if haply he might find any thing thereon
and when he came to it
he found nothing but leaves;
for the time of figs was not yet
and Jesus answered
and said unto it,
“no man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever”
and his disciples heard it

and they come to Jerusalem
and Jesus went into the temple
and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple
and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers
and the seats of them that sold doves
and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple
and he taught, saying unto them
“is it not written,
my house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer?
but ye have made it a den of thieves”

and the scribes and chief priests heard it
and sought how they might destroy him
for they feared him,
because all the people was astonished at his doctrine

and when even was come, he went out of the city.
and in the morning,
as they passed by,
they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
and Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him,
“master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away"

This is a strange story. It’s the only time Jesus does a malicious miracle; a miracle of destruction. But it also seems to be an accidental miracle. Jesus doesn't get cross and kill a tree. The tree withers away and dies because Jesus is cross with it. 

It reminds me of some of the folk-tales and apocryphal gospels. The midwife tries to touch the Virgin Mary inappropriately and her hand drops off. Mary spanks the boy Jesus with a willow switch and all the willow trees rot. Jesus says something casual to a tree and the tree shrivels up. It’s like: nature is an over-keen servant, jumping around and doing what the boss says without checking if he really means it. Jesus may bless little children and heal blind people. But he is still fundamentally scary. The last thing you want is for him to look on you disapprovingly.

Mark quite often wraps one story around another, so that the outer story sheds light on the inner one. Scholars call this “intercalation” or, if no-one is listening, “Markan sandwiches.” This is a good example. The story of Jesus in the temple is wrapped around the story of Jesus and the fig tree. 

The inference is clear enough. Jesus was cross with the tree, but he was even more cross with the temple. The tree had it coming; so does the temple. The present system is going to wither away and die. Because it is not producing any fruit.

What is Jesus' problem with the temple? We are inclined to see a lot of things in the passage which are not there. Jesus is angry because the money-changers are swindling people. Jesus is angry because the animal-sellers are over-charging. Jesus is annoyed by the whole idea of trade in such a holy place. The 1972 version of  Jesus Christ Superstar memorably shows traders selling souvenirs and postcards, like a modern cathedral gift shop. The 2000 version, less subtly, depicts a temple full of gangsters, drug-dealers and lap-dancers.

You go to the temple in order to make a sacrifice: that is what a temple is for. When Jesus healed the leper, he told him to go to the priest and perform the ritual which Moses laid down: a ritual which involved ceremonially killing a bird. If you are going to do the ritual, someone has to sell you the bird. There were rules about what kind of currency you could use to make your donations and pay your temple tithe. (It was inappropriate to give God gifts in a coinage that had a picture of the allegedly divine Emperor on them.) So there had to be people exchanging secular coins for sacred ones. When Jesus overturns the tables he is saying, on some level — no more sacrifices. No more tax. No more ritual. No more temple.

When I imagine this scene, I imagine Jesus making a grand, violent gesture — making a lot of noise and shouting a dreadful warning at the tradesmen as he does so. But Mark seems to say that, after telling the traders to leave, he sits down and spends all day teaching (giving out doctrine) to anyone who will listen. He takes two Old Testament prophecies and puts them side by side. Isaiah said that in the future everyone in the world would accept the God of Israel, and everyone in the world would come to Jerusalem to pray in his temple. But Jeremiah said that the present-day temple was full of hypocrisy — people going through the motions of performing ceremonies but ignoring the Ten Commandments and the moral law. “This Temple isn’t what Isaiah said it would become” says Jesus “It is still what Jeremiah said it was.”

The teaching session follows a familiar pattern. Jesus preaches. The people listening are dumbfounded. And the priests want to kill him. It is hard to see why complaining that dove-salesmen are over-charging would make the priesthood murderous. But if Jesus is announcing or foretelling the end of temples and priests, you can see why things might escalate.

Jesus is angry with the temple. The chief priests and lawyers want to kill him. And when he gets home, the fig tree he was angry with that morning is already dead.

and Jesus answering saith unto them
“have faith in God.
for verily I say unto you
that whosoever shall say unto this mountain
be thou removed
and be thou cast into the sea
and shall not doubt in his heart,
but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass
he shall have whatsoever he saith.
therefore I say unto you, what things soever ye desire,
when ye pray,
believe that ye receive them,
and ye shall have them
and when ye stand praying, forgive,
if ye have ought against any:
that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
but if ye do not forgive
neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses”

The disciples are surprised by the dead fig tree. Jesus takes this to be a teachable moment. But he doesn’t talk about priests or temples or how the fig-tree arguably symbolises Israel: he makes a general point about praying. 

You are impressed because I told a fig-tree to wither? says Jesus. But if you called on the power of God you ought to be able to tell the Mount of Olives to slide all the way back to Galilee. 

Evangelicals always say that “faith” does not mean intellectual assent but whole-hearted trust. Jesus didn't tell the father of the deaf-mute that his son would be healed if he somehow did a mental conjuring trick and persuaded himself that this impossible thing was possible after all. He meant that his son would be healed if he trusted in the dunamis of God. 

But what he is talking about here does look a lot like intellectual belief. He doesn’t seem to be saying “If you have wholehearted trust in God you could in theory order the landscape around.” He seems to be saying “If you believe that you are going to get the particular thing which you ask God for then you will get it, up to and including an earthquake.” (It may even be that Jesus didn’t so much say “when you ask for something, believe that you will receive it” as “when you ask for something, believe that you have received it.”) 

This is an incredibly problematic passage. In the first place, it isn't true. Christians don't order mountains around. Very pious people make sincere prayers and their prayers aren't answered. And we are only a few chapters away from Jesus himself asking God for something very important and not getting it.

Jesus has spoken several times about people’s need to be forgiven by God; and he has antagonised the Pharisees by claiming that he himself can forgive sins. This is, so far as I can see, the first time he has talked about people needing to forgive each other.

Is this merely an “aside”? Is Jesus saying “God will give you anything you pray for. And incidentally, when you are praying for things, remember to forgive anyone you have a grudge against.”

Or are the two things connected? You can use the power of God to cause an earthquake. You really can. The only conditions are that you have to totally believe that the earthquake has already happened. And you have to harbour no ill-will or grudge against anyone who has ever harmed you in your whole life.

Total faith. And perfect forgiveness. That's a pretty high bar you have to clear before you can make the miracle work. 

That is why you see so few Christian induced landslips.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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