King Jesus, riding on a donkey, triumphantly entered Jerusalem hailed as the one who would usher in the kingdom of David. Surrounded by an expectant crowd, he entered the temple, looked at everything, and went home for the evening.
What did Jesus see? The next morning, Monday of Passion Week, Jesus tells us. The King who came to make peace (Zechariah 9:9-10), the Prince of Peace, went to the temple on Monday in judgment. Apparently, he did not like what he seen the previous day.
The enacted parable of the fig tree bookends the central judgment event. Jesus curses the fig tree on Monday (Mark 11:12-14) and the fig tree is dead at the roots by the next morning (Mark 11:20-21). Sandwiched between the fig tree stories, and thus interpreted by them, is the prophetic act of cleansing the temple. Whatever Jesus is doing in cleansing the temple is symbolized by the fig tree. The temple cleansing and the cursing of the fig tree share the same theme: judgment.
As Malachi anticipated (3:1-5), when the Lord comes to his temple, he will come to purify and refine through judgment. Malachi envisions a moment when God will judge immorality and economic injustice as well as those who deprive the alien of justice. God shows up at the temple in judgment rather than grace (cf. Psalm 50 for a similar theme). Jesus sees something in the temple that turns his first kingdom act in the temple—his first teaching moment—into a moment of judgment.
But first the fig tree. Prophets often used symbols and concrete actions to announce their message. Jeremiah uses a linen belt (13) and a clay jar (19). Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days (4:1-5) and packed his possessions as if going to exile (12:1-8). Isaiah walked about naked (20). Jesus follows in the steps of earlier prophets by using the fig tree and enacted parable (and he will do the same in cleansing the temple).
Among the prophets, the fig tree was a popular symbol of Israel (cf. Jeremiah 24; Hosea 9:10; Joel 1:7). The image of the fig, either barren tree or tasking badly, was emblematic of Israel’s own barrenness or covenant-breaking (cf. Jeremiah 8:13; 29:17). In particular, Micah 7:1-7 compares the violence and injustice of Israel to the lack of figs on a tree. Further, to curse a fig tree is sometimes a symbol of God’s judgment upon Israel (cf. Hosea 2:12; Isaiah 34:4). When Jesus curses the fig tree so that it withers and dies, this is symbolic of his judgment upon Israel and particularly the temple authorities.
As Jesus approached the fig tree outside of Jerusalem he saw signs of potential food. A leafed tree might portend fruit of some kind but it was too early for figs which do not appear until the summer months. Since Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover, he would have approached this fig tree most in March-April which is too early for figs. Consequently, his curse might seem unreasonable. However, in the spring the buds of the tree were also edible (cf. Gundry, Mark, p. 636). The narrative did not say he was looking for figs but rather for “anything” (literally translated rather than “any fruit”) that might satisfy his hunger. Nevertheless, Jesus did not even find what anyone might expect to find in March-April.
Jesus comes to the temple to enjoy a pious, devout people dedicated to justice, peace and the worship of God just as he expected to find food on the fig tree. Yet what he finds is a temple as barren as the fig tree and deserving of as much judgment as the barren fig tree.
What did Jesus see in the temple? He saw “buying and selling,” which included the exchange of money (exchanging currency for shekels, the currency of the temple) and selling animals (including two doves for offerings by the poor) in the Court of the Gentiles. This merchandizing—or the conduct of exploitive business—was inappropriate for the temple courts. Jesus, by a prophetic sign-act, embodies God’s judgment by overturning tables and driving out the merchandisers.
Mark justifies this prophetic act of judgment through the lens of two texts in the Hebrew prophets. The first, Isaiah 65:7, reminds Israel that the purpose of the temple is prayer, including the invitation to all nations for pray. The Court of the Gentiles, where the merchandizing was taking place, diverted the purpose of the court from prayer to exploitive money exchanges or economic injustice.
The second, Jeremiah 7:11, accuses the temple authorities of treating the temple like a “den of robbers.” There may be a double meaning here. The temple had become a place for thieves because they defraud and steal from their fellows which is one the emphases of Jeremiah’s own temple sermon. In addition, temple, as Jeremiah noted, had become a place where injustice hides—like a den where robbers hide from judgment. The temple cannot, so it was thought, come under judgment and therefore people are safe in the temple. But they were wrong; the temple will come under judgment as Jesus will make clear in the Olivet discourse (Mark 13).
The temple authorities understand the implications of the symbolic act and its interpretation through the prophetic texts. They recognize it as a political act that judges their authority and power. The kingdom of God—and Jesus acted as king as well as prophet in this moment—judges all other authorities. They feared the loss of power through Jesus’ popularity and thus decided he must die so that their status might be preserved. Whereas earlier Herodians and Pharisees conspired to kill Jesus in Galilee (Mark 3:6), now the temple authorities intend to do the same. Ultimately they will gather a different kind of crowd than the one on Palm Sunday which cried “Hosanna.” On Good Friday, they will incite a mob to scream, “Crucify him!”
Whatever the disciples may have thought about all this, they were surprised to see the dead fig tree the next day. Jesus’ saying about “faith” is a response to Peter’s observation that the fig tree had withered. In other words, “Have faith in God!” is one of the lessons of the withered fig tree. Faith can move mountains; faith bears fruit. With faith, fig trees are no longer barren.
Disciples believe, pray and forgive. Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, would fall under the weight of divine judgment, just like the fig tree. Disciples will find deliverance through faith, prayer and forgiveness.
In the wake of God’s judgment of Israel, Jerusalem and the temple, how do the disciples of Jesus respond? They trust God. They pray in faith. They forgive their debtors. In the midst of judgment, disciples live by faith rather than sight, seek reconciliation and pray that God would move mountains.
When God shows up, God does not always come in grace. Sometimes God prosecutes judgment. Either way, disciples believe, pray and forgive.