Holy Week Reflections: Tuesday
Dr. Hulitt Gloer

We’ve all heard it a thousand times, “Looks can be deceiving.” Some attribute it to Aesop whose actual quote was, “Appearances may be deceiving.” Another anonymous version says, “Don’t be deceived by the first appearance of things, for shadow is not substance.” I’ll stick with the way I’ve always heard it, “Looks can be deceiving.”

We know it’s true because we’ve all experienced it one way or another. The littlest kid on the baseball team comes to bat. You think, “The only way he’ll get on base is to get hit by the ball.” Then to your astonishment, he hits a home run!  A shy little girl steps sheepishly up to the microphone. You think, “She’ll be lucky to get a squeak out” and you’re amazed at the beautiful song she sings. A tortoise and a hare are at the starting line. Obviously, the hare will win the race. Why put the tortoise through such humiliation? Looks can be deceiving.

Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday. Mark alone of the Gospel writers tell us that his Palm Sunday ride ended in the Temple (Mark 11:11). He took a good look around, then retreated to Bethany to spend the night. On Monday morning, he headed back to Jerusalem and the Temple. The story is in Mark 11: 12-22.

Something rather strange happens on the way. Seeing a fig tree that appears to be fruit-bearing, Jesus goes looking for figs and finding none, he curses the fig tree. Seems rather arbitrary, doesn’t it? A random act of unkindness. 

He proceeds to the Temple. Coming over the Mount of Olives, he and the disciples would have a panoramic view of the Temple and all its grandeur. Herod the Great’s 40+ years massive expansion and renovation project had expanded it to an area equivalent to 5 football fields in length and 3 football fields in width.  So beautiful was it, that it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was truly a marvel to behold and appeared to be running on all cylinders. 

The Court of the Gentiles was the largest of the Temple courts by far, including most of the area of Herod’s expansion. Here the necessary Temple business was being carried out. Pilgrims would need to buy the animals required for sacrifice, animals that were pure and spotless. It was virtually impossible to arrive in Jerusalem with an animal in such a condition whether coming from as near as Nazareth or as far away as Alexandria or Rome. Since the Temple tax had to be paid in the Temple coinage (the Tyrian shekel), money changers were necessary for exchanging Roman coinage (or any others). Were these things necessary? Yes; but necessary in the Temple complex, NO! Furthermore, because the Court was so large, it had become a shortcut from one side of Jerusalem to the other. 

Jesus drives out the buyers and sellers, turns over the tables of the moneychangers and seats of the dove sellers. He stops the traffic using the Court of the Gentiles as a thoroughfare. This was more than just a “cleansing of the Temple.” His actions were, in effect, a “shutting” down of the Temple. The “chief priests and the scribes” were furious and wanted to kill him. The Temple was the central bank of Palestine and, as such, their source of income. Charged by Rome with keeping the peace and controlling the populace, Jesus’ actions threatened the status quo and, thus, their positions, their income, and perhaps, their very lives. No wonder they wanted to kill Jesus but they hesitated because the “whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (Mark 11:18).

What was his teaching? When Jesus says, “Is it not written,” he directs our attention to God’s Word spoken to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (56:7). The section of Isaiah in which this verse appears begins with this command from God, “Maintain justice and do what is right” (56:1), neither of which would characterize the priestly hierarchy of Jesus’ day. The Court of the Gentiles was the place where, ideally, “all the nations” could pray. Imagine trying to pray with all that was going on there. It would be like trying to pray in Grand Central Station at rush hour! And the Temple leadership, “the chief priests and scribes” allowed this situation to exist!

The “chief priests “ (the High Priest and his council) and “the scribes “ (the scholars of Old Testament law) were only concerned with the “justice” that kept them in power and that meant collaboration with the wealthy landed aristocrats and Rome the oppressor. In fact, the office of the High Priest was filled, not according to priestly lineage but by Roman appointment and he could be hired and fired at will. He became the de facto head of government whose job was to keep the peace and please the Roman overlords. In effect, then, the High Priest who represented the people before God one day a year (Day of Atonement), represented them before Rome the rest of the year. He was Rome’s primary local collaborator and the Temple was both the house of God on earth and the institutional seat of submission to Rome.

The second allusion is to Jeremiah 7. Here, God calls the prophet to stand before the Temple and challenge the people’s false sense of security, based on the presence of God’s Temple in Jerusalem. After calling out their sins and injustice, God says,

Will you come and stand before me in this house? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? (Jeremiah 7:11)

He calls them to act justly, stop oppressing the aliens (immigrants), orphans, widows, stop shedding innocent blood and going after other gods. 

The people seemed to believe that because they had God’s temple that God would protect them from all dangers, but they must realize that the worship of God apart from doing justice means nothing. It is the everyday injustices that make them “robbers” who retreat to the temple as their den (literally, “cave”), their safe place, their hideaway. The Temple is not where the robbery occurs but the place to which the robbers run for refuge, a “bandit’s cave!”  Jeremiah’s argument was Jesus’ argument.

For all appearance of being a life-giving institution, the Temple was anything but.  It was the place to pay one’s respect to God so we can feel good about ourselves while continuing all the things that make for injustice. What are those things that make for injustice? Jeremiah spells them out: acting unjustly, oppressing the aliens (immigrants), the orphans, the widows (the marginalized), not shedding innocent blood, and not following other “gods.”

Jesus’ argument was not with Temple nor with the priests per se but with the Temple leadership and the people who implicitly supported them by their participation in Temple activities. He didn’t hate the Temple (he called it “My father’s house” and the early Christians continued to attend the Temple after his resurrection and ascension (e.g., Luke 24:53; Acts 3:1).

Back to the fig tree. When the disciple’s pass it the next morning, it has withered “to the root,” that is, there is no life left in it. None. The fig tree had appeared to be fruit-bearing, it appeared to be life-giving but its appearance was deceiving. It appeared to be something that it was not. It was a hoax. 

From a distance, the Temple appeared to be fruit-bearing. It appeared to be life-giving. But it was not. Its appearance was deceiving. It appeared to be something that it was not. It was a hoax. What, then, will its future be?

Mark 11:12-22 is a classic example of a Markan sandwich, a story within a story: Fig tree-Temple-Fig tree. Mark wants us to consider these two events together so that what happened to one interprets what happened to the other. In other words, Jesus’ Temple action is not so much a “cleansing” as it is a “cursing” of the Temple. Mark’s narrative design makes this all too clear. Appearances can be deceiving.

This story is not just about the Temple in Jerusalem in the first century. It’s about any individual or any institution or any church in any century that pretends to be something it’s not. This week, as Jesus makes his way to the cross, is a good time to ask ourselves, both individually and corporately,  the question these stories set before us, “Am I the real thing or am I a hoax, counterfeit Christian? Are we, as a church, the real thing or are we a hoax, a counterfeit church? If we are willing to ask these questions seriously, I think maybe we’ll know the answer by Friday.

*photo credit: Jesus and the Money Changers. Balage Balogh, ArchaeologyIllustrated.com.

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