Monday of Holy Week is an interesting day. Mark records two stories for the day, first is Jesus’ cursing of a fig tree, the second is the cleansing of the temple. These two stories set the stage for the week to come.
The day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem sees the Messiah, along with the disciples, on their way back to Jerusalem. On the way hunger sets in, and a Jesus passes a fig tree he stops to look for some fruit. But as Mark tells us, “it was not the season for figs.” (11:13) When, as we would expect, Jesus finds no figs on the tree he curses it. But, the tree shouldn’t be bearing fruit, so why is Jesus upset? In a few short verses the disciples will find the cursed fig tree withered and dead.
The only account between the initial encounter with the tree and the result of finding it withered is the story of the Jesus at the temple. The story of the fig tree forms a kind of frame for the story of Jesus at the temple. Mark wants us to hear theses two stories together, to let them explain each other. The tree is cursed because it lacks of fruit. The same thing happens at the temple. Jesus overturns tables and chases people from the courtyard of the temple because of the fruit it is bearing.
We could look at this story of Jesus clearing out the money changers at the temple and see that he is upset because God’s “house” has been made into a “den of robbers” and get the impression that the problem is with the money changers. We could decide that they were charging too much to change the Roman coinage that the worshipers brought with them into the appropriate temple currency. But, I think we miss the point of the story if that’s the choice we make.
In his demonstration against the temple, Jesus quotes from Jeremiah in calling the temple a den of robbers. In Jeremiah 7, the prophet writes:
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?
In this context, the meaning is clear. The injustice of the people in their everyday lives is what makes them robbers. They treat the temple like a safe-house, a hide-away. The temple is not where the robbery happens, but rather where the robbers head for sanctuary.
I believe this was not only what Jeremiah had in mind when writing the original prophecy, but also what Jesus had in mind when he quotes from it in the courtyard of the temple. It is not the money changers or merchants selling sacrificial animals which get Jesus in a tizzy. It’s the collaboration between the temple authorities and their Roman overlords.
What aggravates Jesus about the temple is the lack of fruit from the religious institution that is in full leaf. Care for the widows, the orphans, the stranger is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of God, whether you are Jewish or Christian. Jesus did not find fruit on the fig tree, and it withered away to nothingness. Jesus did not find the fruit he wanted from the religious structures of the temple and made a point of making a public demonstration to let everyone know.
Collaboration with an oppressive government was at the root of Jesus’ demonstration at the temple. He had hoped, even prayed that the religious powers of the day would put justice first. He hoped that they would do whatever it would take to provide care for all people. But, he did not find the fruit he longed for.
If Jesus passed us on the street, would our lives be filled with leaves, or laden with fruit?