The distress of Jesus

Mark 11: 12-26

Jesus is traveling ever closer to his inevitable death and the tension Mark is building as he narrates these final days is oppressive and intense. Today’s passage, encompassing Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and his cleansing of the Temple, makes difficult reading. Is Jesus merely displaying the natural psychological irritability and agitation of a man moving irrevocably to his doom? How do we understand what appears to be arbitrary petulance when Jesus’ desire for fruit is thwarted?

Mark’s deliberation in placing the story of the fig tree at either end of Jesus’ very public and passionate teaching in the temple, is a clue for us. Somehow these stories are meant to be linked, the lessons learned in one reflected in the other.

Who is worshipped in the Temple? Yahweh. The rescuing God of Israel. The extraordinary Lord of goodness and mercy who against all odds, bends His ear towards the oppressed, who liberates the slave, who promises and delivers freedom, life and abundance. Jesus’ anger is not an out pouring of his own strained psychological state, though that would have been understandable. Jesus’ distress is directed at the suppression of the saving grace of God, the smothering of the covenant of love and liberation beneath human trade, control and commerce.

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.”

The fruitless fig tree and the commercialization of faith are carefully linked here. Commentaries note that the fruitful fig tree was a conventional symbol for Israel throughout the Old Testament. The tragedy of Israel’s unfulfilled role as a blessing to the nations is made explicit by Jesus. Generous fruitfulness and abundance has been replaced by a withholding, and then an utter barren withering.

This is a dark and a stark exposure of a religion which had become corrupted and stripped of life and freedom. Worse, the religious structure was misrepresenting the very nature and character of the wonder and intimacy of the saving and giving Lord.

What is the source of true human transformation and liberation? Jesus is clear in verses 22-25. Personal faith in God, fed and nurtured in prayer, is so real and true that the greatest miracle of all can be possible. Through prayer and with trust in the work and forgiveness of God, we can actually forgive others. Extraordinarily, we can begin to manifest towards others the mercy and generosity which is at the very core of the nature of the great God we worship.

May God’s generosity and mercy be poured into us, and then through us to others, this day.

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