If you study today (Monday) in the last week of Jesus, you will find that it’s all about a tree and a temple. The temple story is far more dramatic and instantly recognizable; the scene where Jesus is flipping over tables and clearing the temple of all its filth and corruption. But it’s His’ early morning teaching when He spots a fig tree, which sets the table for the action that is to come.
In Mark 11:12, we find Jesus making a return trip to Jerusalem with his disciples from the town of Bethany where He was staying. Not far out-of-town he spots a fig tree in full leaf (which should be nothing of great note, since fig trees in that region should be in leaf at that time of year). Jesus was hungry, so it likely appears to all those with Him that He’s walking over to the tree to look for something to eat. Now here’s where it gets a bit curious and definitely interesting.
Fig trees would not have full size fruit until mid-summer, so Jesus can’t be looking for breakfast. So why is He so interested, and what is it about this particular fig tree that would warrant Jesus’ interest? A little bit more of the backstory … Fig trees, during this season of the year, would normally have small knobs called “taqsh.” Taqsh gives evidence of coming fruit and would drop off before the actual fig begins forming. Taqsh is edible and would often be offered to, or eaten by the poor. Okay, so again we ask, “Why is Jesus so interested.” Let’s keep following the story to find out.
Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
So, this is crazy, Jesus walks up to the tree, finds nothing but leaves and curses the tree. Whoa, that is really extreme … and so confusing! It’s not the season for figs, right?! So why in the world would Jesus say that?! The answer lies squarely with the issue of appearances. In seeing a fig tree from far off that was in full leaf, that tree is giving the appearance of being healthy, and at that time of year, offering humble “fruit.” The tree gives the appearance, but when Jesus approaches to examine it, He finds no taqsh.
Jesus knows, of course, there was no taqsh on this tree, and in that He saw the need and opportunity to teach His disciples (and us) a critical lesson. I believe Jesus stopped, examined the tree and cursed it in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear because that particular tree symbolized something He does not want to be true in the life of anyone who chooses to follow Him. In his curse Jesus seems to be saying, “Don’t be a believer deceiver.” Don’t be someone who takes great care and effort to give the appearance of a follower, but who, on closer examination possesses no fruit. This tree offers nothing other than something to look at. There is no life sustained or offered by it. This tree is a poison to the kingdom Jesus is here to announce.
Having introduced this critical truth, Jesus continues onto Jerusalem with his disciples. But before we arrive at the temple, I believe it’s critically important to note that this is not the first time Jesus has been to the temple this week. As parade day ended, Mark 11:11 says, “And He went into Jerusalem and into the temple complex. After looking around at everything, since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” Sometime in the late afternoon of that joyous day, Jesus purposed a visit to the temple. The Bible doesn’t describe the scene, but I envision that he finds a moment to slip away from his disciples and the crowd. He often did that to pray, so there is precedent. His visit to the temple is not described in any great detail, which might lead one to believe that he simply took a stroll, and because it was late, he left and went back to Bethany. But a closer look at the translation of the original language suggests that this “looking around” was anything but a casual stroll, or just checking the place out.
Much time and history had transpired since Solomon was assigned the task of building a fitting house for God. This temple had been rebuilt by Herod, and while it was an architectural marvel, it was a far cry from a house of prayer or a dwelling place for the Most High. Using time as a backdrop to the scene, this was Passover, and their modern celebration of it had become quite the spectacle. Hundreds of thousands of out-of-towners made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and the temple was at the center of the bustle. Passover had become big business. ”Vendors” packed the temple offering a myriad of services to the Passover pilgrim to “aid” in their celebration. Before purchasing your Passover lamb, you first had to make a stop at the currency exchange booth, where someone was ready to take your native currency and exchange it for temple coinage (at a profit, of course). Also from all that I’ve read, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the modern-day equivalents of a t-shirt vendor, carnival game operator and timeshare salesman, all packed within the temple walls, ready to “service” their out-of-town guests.
Jesus has observed it all that evening before and in his visit Monday we hear of no “looking around”, or “fact-finding”. There is no mention of a “posse” in the form of assistance from the disciples, or any of his followers. No, Jesus enters the temple with full intent and claims this as a one-man, or better described, God-man job. Immediately he begins to make a mess of the mess that has been made of his Father’s house. He turns over tables and drives out every last remnant of evil and vice that had corrupted this sacred place. And in the midst of his righteous anger and action, scripture says that he taught and reclaimed the temple as a house of prayer for all nations.
Tuesday’s dawn would provide punctuation to the powerful teaching in the midst of Monday’s extraordinary events. As Jesus and the disciples once again left Bethany, they passed by a familiar place and witnessed a familiar sight. Except this time there was no life or leaf to deceive the passer-by as to the existence of fruit on the cursed fig tree. On seeing it, Peter exclaimed “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” Now, apart from Peter sounding like a master of the obvious, think about what the disciples were looking at. When was the last time you saw a tree completely wither and die in a day? And add onto that, when was the last time you saw someone curse a tree with words, and see it completely wither and die in a day?
The tree and the temple – one cursed and one reclaimed. Both are strong and conjoined lessons of God’s hatred for the outward appearance of fruit with no evidence of it from within. Let the events of this day cause us to honestly examine our own lives and allow the Spirit to do any necessary house cleaning.