It is well worth reading today's section of Mark's gospel carefully. Our question is, "How can this story about Jesus' going back and forth between Jerusalem and Bethany, cursing a fig tree along the way, be helpful to me on this summer day?"
First, some geography. Bethany is about a half an hour's walk east of Jerusalem. It is the village that some say was know as "house of figs" because of the fig groves there. The name came to mean "house of the poor" because it is said that the poor and sick congregated there, to be outside and away from Jerusalem. It may be why Jesus was comfortable there and why he went there to get away from the city. His close friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived there.
Our story starts with Jesus in Jerusalem, in the temple area. "He looked around at everything and, since it was already late, went out to Bethany with the Twelve." He must have just stayed overnight in Bethany, because "the next day" they head back into Jerusalem. Along the way, with the Twelve along with him, he curses a fig tree that doesn't have figs on it - even though, it isn't fig season. Doesn't this seem odd? We have to read the rest of the story for this story to help us.
We can imagine that Jesus spent the night, and his morning prayer, reflecting upon what he saw in the temple the day before. In the outer court, especially at this approaching Passover festival season, there were people from all over, purchasing animals - from big ones (oxen and sheep) to the little ones (pigeons and doves), depending upon what they could affort - to be offered in sacrifice. We can imagine the sounds and the smells. The law required that the purchase had to be made with a coin from Tyre, which is the only one that was 95% pure silver. The trouble was that Rome closed the Tyre mint, but gave the Jews permission to mint their own coin, that pure, but demanded they keep the god Hercules' image on the coin. The religious leaders made a mental compromise, agreeing it was okay to use this coin, even though any image of a false god was forbidden (a mere "technical violation"), because the coins were nearly pure silver, Rome required it, and they didn't actually offer worship to the god. So, there had to be money changing tables all over, so that people could exhange their money into these special Tyrian silver coins, so they could buy their animals to be sacrificed.
Jesus saw all of this going on in the temple. He went to Bethany and saw so many of the poor and sick there, pushed off to the side as "impure." Now he returns to the temple where all this business went on. It isn't too difficult for us to imagine his being quite upset. “Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’? (quoting Isaiah 56:7) But you have made it a den of thieves. (quoting Jeremiah 7:11)” We can sense that in his heart he was feeling the temple had become a house of exclusion and filled with violations of the spirit of the law. He overturned the tables of the money changers and created such a stir that the religious leaders heard about it and "were seeking a way to put him to death." He was overturning their rejection of his revelation of God's love and inclusion.
Jesus had responded to the same religious leaders' objection to his eating with tax collectors and sinners: "Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’(quoting Hosea 6:6) I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."
This is a great lesson, but there is even more to the story. As they are going back to Bethany, Peter notices the cursed fig tree is completely withered, somewhat surprised that Jesus had that kind of power. Jesus says, "all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours." But he adds more - now we get to the lesson from a fruit-less fig tree and heartless religious leaders. "When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions."
Our following of Jesus this day is all about being merciful. Our fidelity involves inclusion of sinners, especially care for the stranger and the sick. Our faith traditions shouldn't exclude, or justify excluding, those in need. Jesus wants us to overturn that kind of unforgiving style which simply doesn't lead to fruit that will last.
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