In the gospel of Mark the entry into the Jerusalem temple is found in chapter 11. Since Mark’s gospel is 16 chapters in length, the events we find here come near the end of the story. Therefore, we need to put the story in context, because it helps clarify the meaning of the stories that we find in these two chapters.
Mark’s gospel has a dialectical structure, meaning; it follows a pattern of thought that suggests a “thesis” or proposition, which is then countered, clarified, corrected, and expanded by an “antithesis,” which then results in a conclusion, resolution or “synthesis.” In Mark, this pattern is seen in its portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah (see Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Writings of the New Testament).
Mark 1.1-8.26 is the “thesis,” where Jesus is seen as the worker of mighty deeds. Throughout these opening 8 ½ chapters Jesus goes around healing people of diseases, physical and mental illnesses, casting out demons, raising the dead, and so on and so forth. Jesus is the divine miracle worker.
Then in Mark 8.27-30 Jesus has gathered his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, where he asks them “who do people say that I am?” Peter, speaking for the entire group, declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone about this.
In Mark 8.31-15.38 we encounter the “antithesis,” where Jesus is seen as the suffering servant, one who will endure much suffering for his message and actions, and ultimately will be put to death.
The synthesis (or resolution) comes in Mark 15.39, when for the first time someone truly grasps what it means to call Jesus the Messiah. The recognition and declaration is not made by one of Jesus’ disciples—they have already abandoned him after he was arrested. Rather, it comes from a Roman soldier, one who had just participated in Jesus’ crucifixion, has his eyes opened somehow, and declares “truly this man was a son of God.”
So, why is all of this background and context necessary and important?
It’s important because it reveals how Jesus’ actions in our story contrast and subvert the messianic hopes and visions of the people of Israel. It’s important because we too sometimes want a God who is the cosmic miracle worker, who conquers through signs and wonders and miraculous acts of power. We don’t often want the God who conquers through humble love and selfless giving even to the point of death. You see, Jesus’ entrance into the Temple subverts the establishment, the tradition, the unquestioned assumptions and beliefs of his day. It is a prophetic action and critique that leads to his execution. Let’s walk through the story and see what I mean by that.
In preparation for his entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him to find him a young colt to ride into the city. Jesus has been walking around the entire narrative, so why would he need a donkey to ride now? It’s not that Jesus is suddenly tired and needs help making it into the city, the action is symbolic (as all prophetic action is), and is meant to contrast and refute the popular messianic hopes. The donkey was a symbol of peace, in contrast to a horse which was a symbol of war.
Jesus enters on a donkey, proclaiming that he comes to bring peace not violence, but the crowds (and the disciples) are too caught up in their nationalistic hopes and ambitions to recognize the irony of their shouts. Jesus is well-known at this point. News about his prophetic words and deeds have spread, and so when he makes his way into Jerusalem the people are expecting him to begin a revolution that will overthrow the Romans, and establish an independent Israel once again. Listen to the nationalistic slogans they shout as Jesus rides into the city:
“Save us now! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH! Blessed is the coming kingdom of David! Save us! Save us now!”
It’s an effort to compel Jesus to begin another revolution of violence and war to overthrow Israel’s oppressors. It wasn’t a novel idea with Israel. It had been attempted before and would be so again. It’s not a novel idea with humanity. We always want God to love who we love and hate who we hate. We always associate God with our nationalistic dreams and ambitions, thinking that we are the chosen people of God, and that God only loves and blesses us and no one else. We see this ideology throughout history. From the time of Homer’s Iliad to present day, it is a nationalistic deity that we desire, who will affirm everything we affirm and defend our causes and justify our violence and wars.
This kind of mindset is what is fueling these chants as Jesus enters into the city. Take back our land for YHWH and for Israel! For God and country, go out and fight against and destroy our evil Roman oppressors! YHWH is our God alone, who hates the Romans and loves us, and is about to bring judgment upon them through the revolutionary leadership of the Messiah.
Yet Jesus disappoints the crowds and shatters their expectations and nationalistic dreams of a violent overthrow in YHWH’s name. Jesus goes, not to the center of Roman military and political authority, but to the center of Jewish life, the Temple. It’s not the triumphal entry most had hoped for. It’s not really a triumphal entry at all—at least by the standards of the day.
Rather than coming in and beginning a insurgency, Jesus walks into the Temple, surveys what is happening, takes in all the sights and sounds, and then walks back to Bethany (a town just outside Jerusalem) with his disciples. It’s rather anticlimactic really. The crowds gather to cheer their hope for political liberation, their desire for a revolution to overthrow their oppressors, and the one on whom they have placed these hopes doesn’t offer any prophetic critique or denunciation of the Roman authorities. Rather, he quietly makes his way into the Temple, looks around, and then leaves. And, I imagine, many were dismayed and confused and upset, wondering what kind of deliverer is this?
The disappointment and disenchantment is evident the next day. When Jesus again returns to Jerusalem there are no crowds cheering his arrival, no nationalistic slogans being proclaimed, no more than a faint and silent hope in the hearts of the people who happen to notice his arrival that he will bring the hoped-for overthrow of Rome and restoration of the nation of Israel.
Again, Jesus makes his way to the Temple, but this time he begins overturning tables and driving out merchants and moneychangers. It’s a revolution, of sorts, but against the leadership and aristocracy of Israel not Rome. To disrupt the Temple activities, however briefly it may have lasted, was to challenge the leaders who had authorized such practices in the first place. The moneychangers and merchants didn’t just “set up shop” one day in the outer precincts of the Temple known as the courts of the Gentiles. No, their presence there had been authorized by the priests who carried out and regulated the Temple rituals.
These merchants and moneychangers served a purpose. Like today, there were many forms of currency circulating, but the currency accepted was of a different kind. This is where the moneychangers became necessary. All the worshippers who came to the temple had to exchange their coins for the temple currency, and like today, there was a fee that came with the currency exchange. The worshippers would also need an animal to offer as a sacrifice for whatever festival it happened to be. Since many of them traveled some distance to get to the temple, purchasing an animal upon arrival was more prudent. So, the merchants were there to provide animals that fit the regulations for animal sacrifices. Ceasing the activity of these individuals was a hindrance to the temple’s activities. Without them the system couldn’t function very well.
So, while Jesus may be critiquing their presence in the temple of Gentiles, preventing Gentile worshippers from having a place to pray and commune with God, his interruption of their activity seems to be a rejection of the temple and its rituals rather than a reform of it. It’s a critique and condemnation of the system that nationalized YHWH, that made God their sole possession, that had turned their gaze inward, that had forgotten that they were called to be a nation of priests, that is, a nation that bore witness to the reign and rule of God in human history by practicing compassion, mercy, grace, love, and embrace of the stranger, the outsider, the outcast, the downcast, the “other.” They had turned a message of good news for the entire world into a proclamation of good news for themselves and bad news for everyone else. God became their national god rather than the God who loves all the peoples of the world.
It’s so easy to fall into this way of thinking and acting. And, from a distance, it’s hard to tell the difference. That’s the point of the story about the fig tree that frames the Temple episode. From a distance the tree looks fruitful, but upon closer inspection it is nothing more than the appearance of fruitfulness while no fruit exists on the tree. The story about the fig tree is really a story about the Temple. The temple is characterized by Jesus as what I would call a withered thriving. It appears fruitful but it isn’t. It appears to be pleasing to God but it isn’t. It’s full of busyness, but its actions have distorted the point of it all. Jesus’ critique of the temple is the same critique made by the prophets of ancient Israel, who rejected ceremony devoid of meaning, form devoid of substance. They would boldly declare that God didn’t want a bunch of empty rituals and ceremonies; in fact, the prophets reveal that God hated them, because what God wanted was for justice and righteousness, compassion and grace to be manifested on the earth.
I think the parallel for us is to ask whether we’re often more focused on and concerned with the form of things (whether we like the style of music or the style of preaching of the format of all our myriad programs) or with the substance of things (whether justice and mercy and compassion are being manifested in the world). We need to ask ourselves whether our focus is on a bunch of programs that try to attract people to our building, our particular gathering of believers, or whether our focus is on sharing the good news of God’s grace with anyone and everyone, not to try and get them to join our church but simply because it is a message of good news that we believe everyone needs to hear? And we need to ask ourselves whether we’ve tried to make God our national, tribal deity who loves who we love and hates who we hate, who affirms our violence and hatred and war as more righteous, who loves us and blesses us and is our God alone?
Imitating Jesus in his prophetic endeavors requires much faith. Challenging the unquestioned assumptions of a people—whether it be the assumptions and ideology of a nation or of a local church—is no small or easy task. Sometimes being prophetic means exposing the false realities that we’ve constructed, revealing that the very foundations that seemed incontrovertible are in fact defective. Put another way, as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, following Jesus’ example means revealing that the food we thought pleasant was actually devoid of flavor and the light we thought we were walking in was in fact darkness.
As Jesus reveals in verses 20-24, such a task is never easy. Indeed, it is like “saying to a mountain, get up and be moved into the sea,” because questioning unquestioned assumptions is like trying to move a mountain with mere words. Yet, Jesus encourages his disciples (and you and I) by telling them (us) that if we trust in God and his redemptive way of life—the seemingly foolish way of loving our God by loving our neighbor as our self, of loving our enemies, praying for our persecutors, putting others above ourselves, forgiving any and all who wrong us, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, giving our shirt as well as our coat, caring for the poor and lonely and despised and outcast, doing justly, loving mercy, and walking in humility before God—such faith can and will move mountains, even those as seemingly immovable as the unquestioned ideologies of a nation.