April 9, 2009 by J. Madson
On the day following Jesus “triumphal entry” or more accurately his public anti-imperial demonstration lampooning the “conquering emperor entering a city on horseback through gates opened in abject submission,” we find what is commonly referred to as the “cleansing of the temple.” NT Wright has suggested that the events of this Monday were at the heart of the desire to arrest and crucify Jesus. Mark describes the events in this manner:
“On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.” (Mark 11:12-19 NRSV)
In this account we find what appears to be an interesting aside concerning a fig tree. There are some very odd things occurring with the fig tree. Mark 11:13 tells us that it was not even the right time for the fig tree to produce fruit. So why does Jesus destroy a tree that by all the laws of nature should not and could not be producing fruit at that time?
It is important to note that the cursing of the fig tree which occurs before the temple incident and the results of the curse which occur after the temple incident are purposefully arranged in this manner to inform the reader about what is occurring in the temple. They are in literary terms framing the story of the temple incident.
What does the fig tree story frame? It frames the “cleansing” of the temple. Christ enters the temple and shuts down the temple for a day. He shuts down the very necessary economic aspect of the temple which allowed people to exchange their money for the proper coins to pay the temple tax, buy livestock for offerings, and he forbid any carrying of vessels or religious objects through the temple. The temple was in effect shut down. What is even more fascinating about the story is the charge made against the temple or more accurately those in power.
Den of Robbers
Jesus cites Jeremiah and claims that the temple has become a den of robbers. What do Jesus’s words mean in this context? How is the temple become a den of robbers? Jesus is again citing scriptural authority. In this case, the words of Jeremiah who stood before the temple and condemned Israel for believing that the temple and their birthright gave them some special status over others. He is mocking those who claim, we have a temple, we are sons of Abraham, etc, etc.
“Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.… Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
(Jeremiah 7:3-11 NRSV)
Again, how has the temple become a den of robbers? Two observations: a den of robbers is not where the crime takes place. In other words he is not condemning the temple because robbery is taking place within its walls but that it is the den or place were those who commit such crimes hide or take refuge. It is the place where “they flee for safety after having done their robbing elsewhere.” The religious leaders of his day were literally robbing the underclass all the while walking around in robes of piety. It is doing justice to one another that God requires. It is oppression of the alien, the orphan, the widow, the shedding of innocent blood (sacrifice), that merits Jesus’s condemnation. It is a prophetic tradition that God rejects worship because there is no justice but what we never hear is “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship.”
More telling is the word used for robbers/outlaws. In Greek, “lestes” also refers to Zealots or rebels who engage in violence. We know that the temple eventually became a den of Zealots when the Roman-Jewish war took place between 60-70ad and the temple was converted into a military garrison to fight the Romans. Interestingly enough, this is when the temple was torn down as Jesus prophesied in conjunction with them turning it into a place of violence. It seems to me Christ is making a very pointed criticism about the Jewish revolutionary tendency to use violence. This is why Jesus is what NT Wright calls a double revolutionary. He challenges the powers that be but also challenges them in a way no other revolutionary did, non-violently.
Now what does this have to do with the fig tree and framing? Framing is used frequently by Mark and authors and its intent is to help us understand what the central story (temple confrontation) means by using a framing story (fig tree).
The fig tree represents the temple and Israelite faith that should be producing fruit. Mark’s emphasis was that the Temple, just as the fig tree, would soon wither up and die because the people were performing acts without Godliness. There was worship but no justice. Specifically, the temple had become a den of robbers where the religious and political leaders could claim righteousness and piety all the while oppressing the people. And in 30-40 years the temple would actually become a refuge for violent revolutionaries who would turn a house of worship into a den of brigands and revolutionaries.