I clean my desk occasionally... and by occasionally I mean every few years when I simply can’t stand it anymore. I remember about 4 years ago, I decided that I had enough of my messy desk and I attacked it with a vengeance. One of our deacons on the following Sunday noticed it immediately and asked what had happened! It had become so cluttered and covered with stuff that I couldn’t stand it anymore and I ruthlessly purged things. It needs it again, by the way.
In this passage this morning, Jesus rather ruthlessly cleans the Temple and he does it with an attitude! In fact, as we read the story, it appears that Jesus seemed to be in a bad mood. He had harsh words for a fig tree because he was hungry and then really took it out on the merchants in the Temple. But is it just that Jesus was angry on that particular day? What is the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions that we read of in Mark 11? Let’s read Mark 11:12-19.
Rather, Jesus here is using his hunger as an occasion for instructing his disciples. Figs aren’t in season during time of the Passover which was that week. And so Jesus knew that there would be no figs on that tree. Being a great teacher, Jesus is creating curiosity among his disciples. Such an outburst would get their attention in a very vivid way. It would prompt them to look for a meaning that would be far deeper. And so it is best to understand Jesus’ actions as an example of prophetic symbolism similar to the actions of the prophets in the Old Testament.
The fig tree is significant in the Old Testament. In fact, prophets often used the destruction of the fig tree as a sign of the judgment of God upon Israel. Jeremiah 8:13 says, “‘I will take away their harvest,’ declares the Lord. ‘There will be no grapes on the vine. There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither’”. Hosea 2:12: “I will ruin her vines and her fig trees, which she said were her pay from her lovers; I will make them a thicket, and wild animals will devour them.”
In this setting, the fig tree represents Israel in Jesus’ day and what happens to the tree is a symbol of what will happen to Jerusalem in its coming destruction in 70 A.D. This encounter with the fig tree is immediately before the temple cleansing. Just as the leaves of the fig tree concealed the fact that there was no fruit to enjoy, so the magnificence of the Temple and its ceremony conceals the fact that Israel is not bearing the fruit of righteousness demanded by God. Jesus’ words are an expression of judgment which anticipates his cleansing and judging action in the Court of the Gentiles which follows. Verse 14 highlights the fact that his disciples were listening to him. If Jesus’ goal was to get their attention, it certainly worked!
Jesus enters Jerusalem to address the problem he had seen the evening before. He goes to the Temple and enters the Court of the Gentiles. This court was a wide area which provided access to the interior parts of the Temple area but it was separated from those areas by a high wall. It was a place where Gentiles could gather at the Temple to pray and worship.
There were also animals being sold in this courtyard. Doves were the recognized offering of the poor and required for the purification of women as seen in Leviticus 12:6 and Luke 2:22-24. The stalls for the sale of animals and of other requirements for the sacrifices such as wine, oil and salt, had transformed the Court of the Gentiles into an oriental bazaar and a livestock market; a place of business instead of prayer and worship.
But there is more to the background which gives more fuel to the anger of Jesus. There were areas on the Mount of Olives, which were considered part of the Temple precincts where the pilgrims could buy what they needed to worship in the Temple. In fact, on the Mount of Olives there were four markets where pilgrims could buy doves and other ritually pure objects for sacrificing. These markets were not under the jurisdiction of the High Priest Caiaphas, but of the Sanhedrin.
However, Jesus was also appalled at this disregard for the sanctity of an area in the Temple which was consecrated for the use of the Gentiles. The use of the forecourt as an open market had the effect of prevented the one area of the Temple which was available to the Gentiles from being a place of prayer. So in a display of anger about this injustice, he violently drove out the merchants and their customers, overturning the tables of the money changers.
The scriptural warrant for Jesus’ violent action is clearly given by Jesus in verse 17. The first quotation is from Isaiah 56:7. This prophecy speaks of a function which God had intended for his house both for his people Israel and for all the nations. The clause “for all nations” is found only in Isaiah 56:7 and in Mark’s account. The second part of Jesus’ protest recalls the language of Jeremiah 7:11 and also makes it clear what the Temple had become in sharp contrast to what was God’s intention. There the merchants are described as “robbers” because they were insensitive to the holiness of the area where they practiced their trade. By throwing out the merchants Jesus freed the place where the Gentiles were allowed to worship.
In view of the explicit quotation of Isaiah 56:7 and the allusion to Jeremiah 7:11, Jesus’ action was aimed the abuse of the Gentiles. He made it possible for the Gentiles to worship at the feast of the Passover which commemorated God’s redemption of his people. The importance would not be lost on Mark’s readers in the predominately Gentile church in Rome for Jesus had stood up for them!
Do we stand up for those who are mistreated or overlooked? Do we stand up for the homeless who are often overlooked in our communities. Do we stand up for neglected and abused children who are often silent victims. Do we stand up for the poor in the world who die of curable diseases but pharmaceutical companies won’t develop drugs for those diseases because they won’t make any money? Jesus stood up for those who were overlooked and taken advantage of. Do we?
III. Now the plot to kill Jesus takes on a more urgent tone as see in verses 18-19.
The Temple authorities did not offer any resistance, which is surprising but understandable. While the incident disrupted the activity in the Court of the Gentiles, it did not interrupt the functioning of the main Sanctuary. Moreover, Jesus’ action was not directly revolutionary against Rome. His violent kicking out of the merchants could be explained as an act of piety. But it did fulfill Malachi 3:1-5 where the Lord will suddenly come to his Temple.
Yet the Temple authorities did respond by plotting even more how to get rid of Jesus. Jesus’ legitimate censure of the priests for their misuse of the Temple is the immediate reason for the decision which leads to his arrest and crucifixion. This event may have signaled to them the emergence of a new Zealot leader who could only be considered as a threat to their stability with the Roman rulers. In contrast to the hostile response of the chief priests and the scribes, the people were spellbound at this impressive display of authority. The people are astonished, but there is no indication that they have now understood Jesus as the Messiah. They just knew that Jesus had some kind of authority and power.
And Jesus’ popularity with the people explains why the authorities did not order his immediate arrest. Rather they discussed how they could destroy him without creating a popular disturbance of major proportions. Verse 18 makes it clear that it was not the Jewish people that rejected Jesus but the Temple authorities and their scribal supporters. The account is abruptly ended by Jesus returning to Bethany at the close of the day. This brief notice prepares for the sequel to the incident of the fig tree. It also is an ominous foreshadowing of the destiny of Jesus and his enemies.