While we were wandering (a lot!) around Prague and Vienna and Venice and Florence and Rome over the past month, we saw one or two art galleries. One thing that Lyndelle and I commented on several times were the frames.
On many occasions the frames themselves were a work of art. But when they were at their best was when the frame and the main artwork worked together as one In some cases, with frescoes on ceilings there is effectively an architectural frame painted into the main work itself, so that the frame truly was part of the main artwork.
That’s our image for this week’s reading. Mark regularly uses “frames” for his gospel stories – a piece either side of the “main” story that are meant to become part of the same message. The stories aren’t separate, but woven together.
That’s the case with the events of Holy Week Monday. There are two parts to the (strange) event round the fig tree, and in the middle is the chaos in the Temple They are all part of the one thing for Mark. All pointing to the one message Both are about a lack of fruit, despite there being ‘leaves’. Both involve a symbolic and powerful “shut down”.
On the following day (Jesus set out to return to the Temple) they came from Bethany. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
It seems pretty strange doesn’t it. Jesus was not an idiot. He knew like everyone else alive on the planet at the time also knew that fig trees do not have fruit on them in Spring. It is fig season here not there!
But the frame isn’t about the frame. The frame is about adding wonder to the main picture And the main picture is about the 4 actions in the temple. Sometimes we call it the ‘cleansing’ of the temple, but that may not paint the picture properly.
The gospel says that Jesus does 4 things:
1. drives out the buyers and sellers
2. overturns the tables of the money changers
3. overturns the seats of the dove sellers
4. doesn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple
The activities themselves are the normal and NEEDED activities for the operation of the Temple They were long-standing practices that were all necessary in order for the Temple to properly function as a place of worship and sacrifice. The money exchangers were needed to allow exchanging Roman coins with for coins that could be used to pay the annual Temple tax. And doves were needed for the ritual sacrifices that were offered at the Temple.
Without these things happening, the Temple cant operate. Jesus is effectively staging a “shut down” of the Temple. A “occupy Temple” if you will
Why? Well, quite nicely, Jesus gives us an explanation. That’s pretty helpful. And as is often the case, Jesus quotes scripture to explain what is going on: ” You have made it a DEN of robbers.” – a quote directly from Jeremiah 7:11
And what is going on in Jeremiah? Jeremiah condemns the people for failing to follow God’s ways in their daily lives, for living without a sense of justice, and then coming to the Temple for safety, counting on God to protect them from being conquered by the latest Empire of the day.
Neither Jeremiah or Jesus as saying what is happening at the Temple is the problem but that the Temple is being used as a safety hiding place for people who are living unjustly.
Robbers don’t rob in their den. They rob in other places and hide in the den.
So the money exchanging and selling of doves, etc. is not the problem. The problem is that the Temple has become a hiding place for robbers.
Over and over again in the scriptures we hear of God’s condemnation of his people because of their lack of justice.
We hear God saying regularly “I reject your worship because of your lack of justice” but never do we hear God say “I reject your justice because of your lack of worship”
Amos 5: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Hosea 6: I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings
Isaiah 1: What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats … learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
The trouble was that by the time of Jesus, the Romans have been appointing the chief priest to act as their local agent in Jerusalem. the Annas/Caiaphas family are recorded in annals of history – not just in scripture – as an incredibly powerful family appointed by the Roman occupying force, to collaborate as the go between and keep the peace.
This means that the Temple has become not only the location of the Ark of the Covenant; the Holy of Holies; the single, central, pinnacle of worship; it has also become the headquarters of Roman Collaboration Mark’s gospel does not suggest that Jesus is a sacrifice for sin Mark’s gospel does not suggest that Jesus is trying to do away with the Temple itself or the priesthood In Mark, Jesus death is a result of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand – and thereby being an alternative to the already present Roman Empire.
Jesus’ shut down of the Temple is making the same point as Jeremiah, whom he quotes: Those who worship are robbing the poor and denying justice for the needy; and God rejects worship when there is no justice.
So what does the fig tree say? What point is the frame making about the picture?
There is nothing abnormal about the tree; it is just doing its usual thing. There is nothing abnormal about the Temple; it is just doing its usual thing. But unlike a fig tree, there is no “season” for justice. Justice is always in season. The Temple has leaves (people worshiping) but no fruit (people doing justice). And Jesus shuts it down.
The event of the Sunday – last week’s reading – and the event of the Monday – today’s are both planned by Jesus. They aren’t just reactions on the spur of the moment.
On the Sunday Jesus prophetically and symbolically states that God’s kingdom is here in a peace-filled movement. That is the kingdom of God
On the Monday, Jesus prophetically we cannot hide in our religion from lives of injustice and collaboration with oppression.
For us in Lent, and for our reflections, we are asked to see how our lives can be peace-filled and justice based. I commend that to our prayers, our conversations and our actions this week.