So it is with great hesitation that I mention here that in today’s gospel lesson (Mark 11:12-26) Mark deliberately sandwiches two stories together to make one central point. That’s a technique he often uses, but usually the preacher can make those observations and keep them to himself. In this instance, however, the story of the cursed fig tree makes almost no sense unless we recognize that Mark is using the story of the cleansing of the temple, which is sandwiched in the middle of two references to the fig tree, to convey a greater message than either story carries on its own.
First, the fig tree. Jesus and his disciples are walking along, and Jesus sees a “fig tree in leaf,” which he approaches in search of some fruit. Finding only leaves, he curses the hapless tree, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The only problem is…it wasn’t the season for figs. Mark goes out of his way to mention that fact. Jesus would have known that, but he was angered enough (it seems) by the fruitless tree that he curses it into oblivion. When the disciples and Jesus pass back by the tree on their way out of Jerusalem once the temple had been cleansed, Peter exclaims, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” Alone, this story shows us little more than the damning power of a petulant, irritable Jesus.
But there’s another story at play here. After cursing the tree, Jesus and his disciples proceed into the city, where he enters the temple and encounters the money-changers and pigeon-sellers. Turning over their tables, he exclaims, “Is it not written ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers!” Lots of attempts have been made to fill out the context of Jesus’ actions. Some claim that those selling things in the temple courts would have charged an outrageous commission. Others argue that buying or selling anything would have undermined the spiritual focus of the temple’s intended function. Actually, I’m not sure that it’s either of those. I think the money-changers and pigeon-sellers were essential for what happened at the temple, and I see no reason to conclude that they were dishonest in their trade except that it provides the preacher with an easier explanation of the passage.
Following something Jeffrey John wrote, I think Jesus’ turning over of the tables represents his rejection of the temple worship of his day outright. But I don’t think he was doing it in the supersessionist, “sacrificial-worship-is-empty-unless-you-view-me-as-the-sacrifice” way that some Christian preachers identify. Instead, I think Jesus was acting in the “minor-prophet” school of temple cleansing, which envisioned God’s anointed (“messiah”) as coming to purify the worship of God’s people (a la Malachi 3:3). Clearly, what Jesus did by overturning the tables in the temple was to interfere with the worship that happened in that place, but to conclude that he did so as an attempt to refine what was being done is a bit of a stretch…unless we look again at the story fig tree, which bookends this passage.
Jesus curses the fig tree for not having fruit even though it wasn’t the season for figs. On one level, that’s unreasonable. Why would anyone (even God) expect figs from a fig tree when it wasn’t the right season for them? But that’s exactly the point. Jesus cursed the fig tree to teach his disciples (and us) about the right time for spiritually substantial worship. “But it’s not the season for figs!” we all exclaim, questioning Jesus’ judgment. And his implicit reply suggests that we can’t wait until the “appointed season” to bear fruit. Our timing doesn’t always fit into God’s timing. As his disciples and as followers of God, the time to bear spiritual fruit is now. It’s always now. And God will not wait until we’ve decided the time has come for spiritual renewal.