It is often said that in our rush to get to the goodness of Resurrection Sunday we have a tendency to want to move quickly past Good Friday, forgetting that we cannot arrive fully at the Resurrection without first understanding the nature of this Friday that we call good.
In reading through the story of the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem in Mark 11, I am struck by the fact that perhaps the reason many of us struggle with Good Friday is because we have also rushed past Palm Sunday, missing the Temple context for both Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. There is a reason why Holy Week begins with Jesus’ entrance to the Holy City, as the Death of Jesus is indeed the Defeat of the Powers of Sin and Death that rule this world and hold it in its grip, and the Resurrection is Christ’s full ascent to the throne in declaring the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven, with the resurrection hope being the truth that the ruler of the New Creation has taken His rightful place and is restoring a world once held in the grip of Sin and Death.
Further yet, what we miss when we rush past the Triumphal Entry is that Jesus comes as the fulfillment of Israel’s story. To understand how it is that Jesus’ house (the Temple) “shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”, we must first understand how it is that the story of Israel finds its beginning in Creation and its culmination in the Resurrection. The context of Israel’s story is written all over Mark 11 and Jesus’ entry into Jersualem, beginning with the grand proclamation of Zechariah Chapter 14 that “on that day” his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives and “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem” declaring the truth that “the Lord will be King over all the earth” and that “on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” (14:9) The choosing of the tethered colt flows from the story of Genesis 49:10-11 and Zechariah 9:9, with the nature of the colt falling in line with the symbolism of Numbers 19:2, Deuteronomy 21:3 and 1 Samuel 6:7. The royal procession occurs in line with the great Maccabean procession following their successful revolt, and the chants of Hosanna flow straight from Psalm 118:25-26, a word that brings together the cry of “save us” and the declaration of praise that acclaims our savior has come. The very declaraion “the coming kingdom of our father David” in Mark 11:10 tells us that to understand what is coming in the death and resurrection is happening in line with the story of Israel.
The structure of Mark 11, framing the triumphal entry against the “Markean sandwich” of the story of the fig tree is purposely rendered to capture precisely what is happening with Jesus’ rising to the throne. As author and scholar Mary Healy puts it in her commentary on the Gospel of Mark, “He comes as the Lord of the temple, who looks around the holy dwelling with his searching gaze to see whether its true purposes are being fulfilled” in line with Malachi’s great and powerful picture of a purifying judgment.
And suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek… But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when appears? For he is like the refiner’s fire.”Malachi 3:1-2
For he is “like” the refiner’s fire. The problem is that they, the image bearers, the lights to the world, God’s people, have made it, the temple, God’s throne room, God’s dwelling place into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17; Jeremiah 7:9-11). The promise to Israel, the grand picture of the covenant through which God declares His faithfulness to “restore” with fire, is that God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. This is the point of the fig tree passage which both precedes and then is properly contextualized and proceeds the cleansing of the temple. The symbolism of the fig tree, one of the most prominant symbols in the scriptures for Israel and God’s working within the life and renewal of Israel is most often used to describe the failure of Israel to be a light to the world, the failure to delcare to God’s good creation the truth of our (creation’s) identity as image bearers over and against the lie of the Powers that has actively worked to hide this truth from us. In the hopeful picture of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, Jesus passes by a tree that is not bearing fruit because “it was not the season for figs”. Don’t miss the fact that the cursing follows this picture of the “season”, lest we read this entirely as God’s judgment for Israel’s failure. In the context of the temple cleansing there is something more going on here than simple judgment. As the Markean Sandwich will highlight, the point is not just the cleansing, but what the cleansing is for. The curse “may no one ever eat fruit from you again” is leading somewhere good.
This simple line in 11:14, “and his disciples heard it” indicates that we will return to this story, but not before we are given the context for this parable like story. Just as Jesus arrives at this fig tree, Jesus arrives in the temple. This is not a passive and linear progression of events, but rather an interpretative device meant to reveal what is going on as Jesus enters the temple and begins to overturn the tables. If the triumphal entry is the grand proclamation of the precise accomplishment and victory that the death and resurrection will soon proclaim, then what Jesus is doing in overturning the tables is preparing to take throne. And what is being proclaimed here? They are robbing people of the goodness of God’s great creation being declared in their lives. As Jesus takes the throne, the cleansed and eventually raised temple, which the Gospel writers understand is the precise image of the death and the resurrection properly understood, will be so that it can function as a prayer “for all.”
And so we return to the story at hand, the story of this fig tree that the disciples “overheard”. As they once again pass by this fig tree the disciples notice that it has “withered away to its roots”. Don’t miss the corelation here with the cleansing of the temple. The temple has been emptied and exposed just as the tree has been withered and the roots exposed. It is Peter who points out the simple truth that this tree has withered, which we are to understand is presented as a question that as of yet stands without an answer, something they had overheard and were trying to figure out. To which Jesus now explains in a parable type explanation:
And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you whoever says to this mountain, be taken up and thrown into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will coe to pass, it will be done for hi. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believ that you have recieved it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone so that your Father also who is in heavn may forgive you your trespasses.”Mark 11:22-25
“Have faith in God.” What a powerful phrase to attach to the picture of this withering fig tree and the parallel picture of the cleansing of the temple. And how often has this passage about faith been so abused when removed from the context of the triumphal entry and its preperatory work for Jesus to eventually take the throne in the death and resurrection.
Have faith in God. Faith for what? That God who is faithful will restore Israel to its true purpose, to be a light to the world. And how is God doing this? Through the cursing, through the cleansing, through the restorative work that declares in the Death and Resurrection, Christ being the faithful one in light of Israel’s failure to be faithful, and from God’s great throne room (the temple that sits at the center of Jerusalem sybmolizing Jesus occupying the throne at the center of the cosmos, the whole created order) that through God’s reign this temple will be called “a house of prayer for all nations”. Therefore, “whatever you ask in prayer” flows from the truth of what this reign wants to instill, from the truth that the victory of the death and resurrection will proclaim in its restorative purposes the true heart of God for His Creation. The beginning of the new creation built around a new order that reflects all the way back to the beginning of the story and the order given to God’s good creation in the grand story of the Genesis narrative to be fruitful, to multiply and fill God’s good earth as God’s image bearers. As theologian Mary Healy wonders, and similar to the picture of the streams flowing outwards that we find in Zechariah noted above,
The tree is not only fruitless, but completely dead. Another, more fruitful tree must take its place. Perhaps in the background is Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple, from which flowed a river with trees along its banks, bearing fruit all year round (Ezek 47:1-12; see Mark 11:13).Mary Healy (The Gospel of Mark)
It’s no mistake that Jesus’ words here in Mark about having faith in this truth, in God’s ascent to the throne declaring a new reality, ultimately lands on this notion of “forgiveness” in 11:29. “Whenever” is an all encompassing word that carries the same inference of the word “all”. If prayers are to reach to “all” the nations, then “whenever” we pray we must be engaging in this exercise of forgivness. For, if you have “ANYTHING” against “ANYONE”, that is keeping the prayers from reaching out to “ALL”, and how can we trust that this “forgiveness” flows back to us (Israel) in this cleansing process. If the cleansing is to do its work, it must come through our participation in this Kingdom work that the Cross and Resurrection will call us towards, and we partcipate in this work through faith in what Christ has accomplished on the Cross and in the Resurrection by rising to the throne. Just as we see in Mark the disciples being sent out repeatedly two by two, an echo of the flood passage in Genesis, so will we arrive at the call of the Great Commission to participate in this prayer for all nations as the hoped for restoration of God’s good creation in Mark 16:14-20. Or to take the original ending of Mark which stops at 16:8, this is precisely what is anticipated when they are called to follow the path to Galilee where Christ “is going before” them. “There you will see him” the angel proclaims, ascending to the throne as the raised temple and declaring that the Kingdom and the hoped for rule of God has arrived in their midst.
Don’t miss the greater context of Malachi’s prophetic imagery here from the aforementioned chapter 3:1-5. If the one who takes the throne “will sit as a refiner and purifier” (vs 3), the one who purifies Israel is doing so for a purpose- to declare as a “judgement” that God is “drawing near” (vs 5). God in Jesus, or Jesus as the full revelation of God with us, will be a “swift witness” against, which means that God will subsequently be a swift witness for. And as chapter 3:1-5 draw out, where Christ has gone before them to Galilee at the end of the Gospel of Mark, both the messanger (figured in John the Baptist) and the Christ in line with the picture of this messanger fully emobided, has been determined to “prepare the way before me” (vs 1) so that they can follow and seek after and thus participate in the new ruler’s Kingdom building process. And in chapter 5 what this looks like is the judgment of the oppressors, those who are “robbing God” (vs 8) by oppressing the poor, the widow, the fatherless, so that the prayers can then freely flow out to the poor, the widow, the fatherless without inhibition. A prayer for “all” is the promise. The oppression is keeping these prayers from flowing out to all. The cleansing of Israel that Malachi imagines is so that through the story of Israel, which in Malachi 1-3 is centered on God’s faithfulness to his covenant even when Israel proves unfaithul, the covenant promise can then and now be fulfilled, giving the Gospel of Mark license to show Jesus’ charge to “have faith” in this great restorative exercise of the new rule, a statement that is ironically followed up by the closing section of Mark 11 seeing those same religious leaders Jesus’ is looking to cleanse and restore challenging Jesus’ authority to do just this.
If we come to the death and resurrection of Christ without first beginning with the triumphal entry, the danger is that we will arrive at the Resurrection and resist its grand call to “have faith” in the truth that Christ has ascended to the throne and that the new Kingdom has arrived in its fullness. We will make the Gospel about us and our salvation rather than about our participation in making “his house” a prayer for all nations. And the grand symbolism of Christ’s arrival and Christ’s ascension to the throne is that we are, as God’s created humanity, image bearers of this truth to the whole of creation. This is why we are sent out two by two and called to participate in this act of prayer being sent out to all the nations. In Christ, if this is true for Israel than it is likewise true for all the world. That we have resisted God’s rule and failed to image this truth to the world is the reason Sin and Death is allowed to hold its grip, the grip Jesus as the faithful one has defeated.
If we come to the death and resurrection without first beginning with the triumphal entry, we will miss the fact that Christ’s restorative ministry begins with our own cleansing, which is precisely the point of moving from the humbling posture of Ash Wednesday through to the Friday we call good before we arrive at the Resurrection. Don’t miss the fact that the den of robbers is aimed at those in the Jerusalem temple. The Church is the very thing being cleansed and restored for the purpose of being a “prayer to all nations” because we, collectively and consistently, have failed in being that light to the world. You, me, we that stand within the walls of the Church and call ourselves “Christians” are the ones that need to heed Malachi’s words when he asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears” in 3:2. The inference is that God is going to restore the Church by freeing the Church to step into its true vocation through faith in what Christ has done on the Cross and in the Resurrection, which flows out into this grand picture we find in scripture of Christ’s dwelling within us and thus by nature of this dwelling cleansing and restoring our lives “like” a refiner’s fire for the purpose of that great message of inclusion that flows from this exercise of “forgiveness”. In truth, none of us can stand when he appears precisely because we are all, collectively, being withered and cleansed so that Christ can ascend and declare the promise of the new creation from His throne, out of which then we are called to get up and to follow Him in this Christ centred, Christ driven, Christ proclaimed ministry of bringing the light of the Easter message to all people and to all the world in faith. In faith that God is indeed making all things new, and God is making all things new through us.