Almighty God, you have built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect, Proper 8, BCP 230)
Monday’s Revised Daily Office Reading, Matthew 21:12-22, places together the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of a fig tree, each problematic and more so together. The cleansing of the Temple appears in all three synoptic Gospels just after Jesus’ triumphal ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The final act had begun.
Only in John does this purification of God’s house appear at the beginning of the gospel (Jn 2:14-16). St. Augustine said, “So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (On Christian Teaching 1:86), so a short word on John’s placement. Some suggest that there were two temple incidents, however we might interpreted that John, written last of the four, was immediately pointing out the radical nature of the new covenant from the start, where the synoptics place the incident in the narrative leading up to Jesus’ capture and trial. It is one explanation, anyhow.
But for the other three the usual interpretation explains that Roman money, with the Emperor’s face stamped on each piece, was unacceptable to pay the Temple tax or to buy unblemished animals or other goods for sacrifice. But this trade had become quite a moneymaking racket, as most human activities involving large transfers of money tend to become. Jesus is not only vandalizing, yes, vandalizing the Temple court, and bringing himself to the attention of the Temple authorities as his time draws near, but making it quite clear that he, as Christ/Messiah, is a new way, one that doesn’t require doves and lambs to be killed on God’s altar. He is the Lamb. He brings the Dove. It is a righteous act, albeit a shocking one.
An exchange market is a pretty crowded and noisy place. We get a hint of that when the lame and blind crowd him to be healed, and the children join in crying Hosanna in Jesus’ honor. The temple authorities are not pleased. And so we have the cleansing of the temple, now to be a place of prayer, not commerce. We are taught that it is not with purchases but with prayer that the people could build up their love of God and neighbor. Cleansing and healing. Radical acts by the Lord, but necessary to begin the final act of redemption and reconciliation. So far, so good. Straightforward as Scripture goes. But it is followed in Matthew, and surrounded in Mark, by a curious story of Jesus’ cursing a fig tree.
Mark’s Gospel gives us the most information. Hungry, Jesus went to look for fruit on the fig tree, knowing it wasn’t the right season. The tree was in leaf. Fig trees have two crops per season. First there is a good fruit crop that is gathering for eating. Then the tree leafs out. After that a second crop of fruit develops, one that isn’t as plump and good, but splendid for drying for food through the winter. How ripe a sequence for a parable! The good fruit a gift for now, for the new covenant. The next crop for sustenance in the long haul. The leafy season, pretty but barren, like the failed Temple, failed Israel, hypocritically flaunting its attractiveness, but without value, without nourishment. And so Jesus comes to a fig tree he knows has no fruit and curses it. On his return (in Mark) or immediately (in Matthew) the tree withers and dies. In Matthew, Jesus’ words to his disciples are, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” And another riddle. Why cast a mountain into the sea? Pure hyperbole?
Mark doesn’t help with the answer. Here Jesus says, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” In both he stresses faith in the Father. Don’t doubt. What you ask in prayer will be given. But in Mark he goes on to remind them that they must forgive in order to be forgiven, although the poor fig tree doesn’t seem to be forgiven. Or the unfaithful of Israel, if we take that interpretation to be true. And Jesus promises unqualified success in prayer, although we know that he says and shows many times how he must discern his Father’s will and accept it. Again, one of those half this, half that sayings that we are given to ponder.
Now the mountain. That part of the world is prone to serious earthquakes, and mountains can and do fall into the sea. But why bring it up here? The Temple on a mount would fall and rise up in three days in the Resurrection. High places were the place of God in the Old Testament, whereas now the realm would be leveled in Christ. The mountains represent the obstacles to our faith. Take your pick. Or choose all of them.
We, too, are now in the Temple with the money changers. With every Hosanna of the children in the Temple, with every cry of the captured and imprisoned children on the U.S. boarder and throughout the nation, Jesus is not only invoked, but the nails are being driven in again. He heard them then. He hears them now. So do we. Are we barren, just pretty leaves with no fruit? We like to preach about God’s love and universal redemption, and I, in faith, believe that. But there is evil. There are demons. We live surrounded by them. And it is only in faith and prayer that we can stay the course. And from that faith we can be fruitful and act, can curse the fig tree, the evil, and hope to save the lost souls around us.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.