A Religion of Inclusion and Service

The perceived importance of the story of Jesus’ act in the temple is evident as it appears in all the four Gospels (Mt. 21.12-17; Mk. 11.15-18; Lk. 19.45-48; Jn. 2.13-22). Mark’s version is the longest among the four. Only Mark makes clear that God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for “all the nations” (Mk. 11.17). The episode in Mark 11.15-18 is generally called “Jesus cleansing the temple”. However, this description of Jesus’ act in the temple is too weak an appraisal. Jesus’ act is symbolic of a more serious pronouncement. Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ action in the temple reinforces the purpose of a larger narrative that the time of fulfilment has come and God’s kingdom has dawned. The final public act of Jesus in the temple forms the climax of the conflict between Jesus, messenger of the kingdom of God, and the guardians of the self-serving Jewish religion.

A. Jesus’ Act in the Temple

After entering Jerusalem, Jesus proceeds to the temple (Mk. 11.11). The critical nature of his visit is clarified by the events of the following day (Mk. 11.12-14). The fig tree episode throws light on Jesus’ act in the temple.

The fig tree event sandwiches Jesus’ temple act (Mk. 11.12-14; 11.15-17; 11.20-26). This event interprets Jesus’ action in the temple. However, there are hardly any references to the temple described metaphorically as a tree, leave alone fig tree. If the fig tree in Mk 11.12-14 is used symbolically for the temple in Mk 11.15-17, the most likely metaphorical use would be as a reference to the Jerusalem temple-related religion not belonging to “the time” (the Greek phrase ho kairos is translated as “the season” in NRSV).      

On the following morning on his way to the temple along with his disciples, Jesus sees “a fig tree in leaf”. He approaches it in order to pluck its fruit and satisfy his hunger. But he finds no figs. The writer points out that it is not ho kairos, which is translated as “the season” (Mk. 11.13). If this is the intended meaning of the writer of Mark’s gospel, then Jesus’ expectation of fruit at this period is unreasonable. Moreover, Jesus cursing it for not producing fruit out of season is outrageous. The other important thing is, Jesus, who lived in Palestine all his life, must have been aware of the fact that it is not the season for the fig tree to produce fruit. Considering these things, one needs to know the writer’s intended meaning of ho kairos (“the time”).  

Mark uses the Greek phrase ho kairos in 1.15, 11.13 and 13.33 (and tō kairō in 10.30 and 12.2). In 1.15 and 13.33 ho kairos refers to the eschatological age (i.e. the “end time” that has come on to this earth with the coming of Jesus Christ). This implies that ho kairos in Mark 11.13 also refers to the eschatological age. Therefore, the cursing of the fig tree demonstrates that the leafy fig tree symbolizing the temple cult does not belong to the eschatological age.

The temple-related religion gives an illusion that it has “fruits”, whereas in reality it is barren. Here “fruits” refer to “serving the needs of people”. The guardians of the temple-related religion, by promoting this delusion, have benefited not only through the business that is taking place at the temple, but also in maintaining their power and authority over people. Jesus is exposing this delusion through the acted parable of “cursing” of the fig tree and by bringing to a halt the business associated to the temple cult.

The purchase of sacrificial animals and change of currency are necessary for the operation of the temple cult. The tables of the money-changers are needed for buying and selling of the sacrificial animals at the site and to exchange Roman coinage with its idolatrous images and inscriptions into an acceptable coinage, probably Tyrian coinage, which would be used for buying sacrificial animals and paying temple tax. Jesus has chased away the buyers and sellers of the sacrificial animals and birds needed for sacrifice, and overturned the tables of the money changers. Jesus overturning the tables of merchants is often understood as Jesus’ desire to rid the temple of dishonest merchants, who are involved in unfair business practices. But the Gospel says nothing about this. Jesus’ radical action is directed at the abolition of the temple cult. As Herman Waetjen says, “This is not an act of reformation intended to eliminate business activities from the observance of the cult or to separate trade and commerce from the worship of God. Jesus is not “cleansing the temple”.” Jesus is rejecting the temple cult: “He would not allow anyone to carry a vessel through the temple” (Mk. 11.16). He is, in effect, stopping the operation required for the functioning of the sacrificial system.

The immediate context of Jesus’ temple act, and the wider context of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God and his conflict with the guardians of the temple-related religion give an eschatological framework. Jesus’ radical act signifies that the temple cult does not belong to the eschatological age. His condemnation on the temple cult is based on the scriptures: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mk. 11.17). This quote is taken from Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7. Isa. 56 envisions a time of full inclusion of the excluded groups of people, and so an inclusive community. Eunuchs and Gentiles, who were excluded from “the assembly of the Lord”, are welcomed (cf. Deut. 23.1-4). God’s house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations. Only Mark has included that God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for “all the nations” (Mk. 11.17). Further, Isa. 56.11 complains about the greed of the leaders of Israel: “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. The shepherds also have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all.” The term “gain” clearly implies that their profit has been unjustly and violently acquired. This is one point of contact with Jeremiah 7. Although “den of robbers” in Mk. 11.17 seems to suggest that the problem is dishonesty of the merchants, the citation from Jeremiah 7 refers to sins including stealing, murder, committing adultery and swearing falsely. These sins refer to the sin of greed. The people of Judah were involved in acting unjustly with one another, oppressing the alien, the orphan and the widow (Jer. 7.5-6). It is such behaviour that made the temple “a den of robbers”. Jeremiah goes on to say that the people “then come and stand before me (God) in this house, which is called by m y name, and say “we are safe” – only to go on doing all these abominations” (Jer. 7. 9-10). The prophet declares God’s judgment on “this house, which is called by my name.” Jeremiah cites the destruction of the Shiloh temple as precedence for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

Therefore, Jesus’ temple act signifies his condemnation on the temple cult (cf. Mk. 15.1-2). At Jesus’ trial one of the charges brought against him is that he has said that he would destroy the temple (Mk. 14.58). The same charge is repeated by the mockers when Jesus is crucified (Mk. 15.29-30). However, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple that Jesus pronounced is not through violent means. This is found in Jesus’ answer to Peter’s astonishment at the sight of withered fig tree: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mk. 11.22-23). The destruction of the self-serving religion happens through the presence of the community of faith. 

B. The Subversive Community of Faith and Forgiveness, and Service

Faith and Forgiveness

The subversive nature of the community of the kingdom of God is evident in Jesus’ answer to Peter (Mk. 11.22-24). To Peter’s exclamation: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered,” Jesus answered: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (Mk. 11.21-23). The witnessing of the withered fig tree immediately follows Jesus’ temple act. “Mountain” in Jesus’ answer refers to the Mt. Zion on which the temple stands. The faith community effects the demise of the self-serving and self-promoting temple cult, because it exposes the duplicity of the Jewish temple-related religion.

The motif of “faith” is emphasized in Mark. The role of faith in healing is repeatedly mentioned (Mk. 2.5, 5.34, 36, 6.6, 10.52). Although the object of faith is not specified in these passages, presumably Mark is referring to God’s kingdom power that is active in and through Jesus Christ. The relation of faith to the dawning of the kingdom of God is evident in Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of God (Mk. 1.14-15).

The faith community is also a forgiving community. Forgiveness removes the barriers among people, which in turn engenders an inclusive community: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11.25). The means of divine forgiveness is not temple and its sacrificial system, but offering forgiveness.

Since faith in God’s kingdom is possible to anyone in any place, and the disciples’ forgiveness of anything they have against anyone generates an inclusive community open to reconciliation and peaceful relations with all other people, the kingdom community of faith and forgiveness becomes God’s house of prayer “for all the nations” (cf. Mk. 11.17). The inadequacy of the temple cult to promote God’s will is expressed by the scribe’s confession that the two-fold commandment of love (loving God and loving one’s neighbour) is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk. 12.32-33). Only in Mark does the scribe declare that the commandment of love for God and neighbour “is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (cf. Mt. 22.34-40; Lk. 10.25-28). By subverting the temple’s entire sacrificial worship, designated by a generalizing reference to “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”, through the two-fold commandment of love, the scribe has in effect called into question the worth and adequacy of the temple cult. The love for God and one’s neighbour surpasses the greed perpetuated by the temple-related religion. Seeing that the scribe responded “with understanding”, Jesus confirms the surpassing value of love for God and one’s neighbour by pronouncing that he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12.34).

Greatness as Service

The community of the kingdom of God is characterized by not only faith and forgiveness, but also service. The primacy of service is emphasized in Mk. 9.33-37 and 10.42-45. The disciples’ discussion on greatness provides an occasion for Jesus to teach about true greatness in terms of service: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9.35). Such service should be rendered to those marginalized in the society such as children (Mk. 9.36-37) and “little ones” (Mk. 9.42). In response to the request of James and John for places of honour in the kingdom of God, Jesus instructs:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mk. 10.42-45).

The disciples know how rulers use their power and authority to dominate and make people serve their greed. Their knowledge of the way power and authority operate in society is used by Jesus to teach them the alternate way that power and authority should be used by the community of the kingdom of God. He clearly stresses that the behaviour of rulers is the model that should be avoided by his disciples. The way the rulers rule and the great men exercise their authority and power is unacceptable in the community of the kingdom of God. Self-seeking, self-promotion, and abuse of power and authority for self-interests are improper in the community of the kingdom of God. “Greatness” and “being first” involve inversion of familiar models.

In contrast to the familiar models of greatness in the society, Jesus becomes the model of greatness to his disciples. Greatness is redefined in the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches greatness as service. The word “great” in Mk. 10.43 echoes the word “great ones” in Mk. 10.42, and the word “slave” in Mk. 10.44 the word “lord over” in Mk. 10.42. The intention of this is to emphasize the contrast between the way power and authority are understood in the community of the kingdom of God and in the society. Mk. 10.43-44 reinforces the idea of service presented in Mk. 9.35. Jesus commands those who want to be great among his disciples to be servants and those who want to become first to be slaves of all. His teaching on service grows out of the commandment to love one’s neighbour.

The disciples of Jesus are freed from the enslavement to the self-serving religion. “Ransom” effects deliverance from enslavement to this religion: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10.45).  The term “ransom” refers to slave market, where a slave is redeemed from slavery by paying a ransom price. In Mk. 10.45 “ransom” does not refer to Jesus’ death ransoming many from their sins. Here “ransom” is presented as a parallel to “came not to be served but to serve”, and in contrast to “tyranny” and “lording over”. The ransoming for “the many” is from the system or social order of “tyranny” and “lording over” into a system of service. Jesus gave his life as a “ransom” to liberate “the many” from the system of enslavement to power and authority (“tyranny” and “lording over”) into the system of serving others, especially the poor and the marginalized. Freedom from the system of enslavement to power and authority is expressed by being a “servant” or “slave”.

Service to others, particularly the marginalized, is central to the ministry of Jesus Christ and so to his disciples, even if such service attracts opposition from “tyrants” and “lords”. The service of Jesus expressed in terms of “giving his life a ransom” is the cause for the service of disciples (notice “for” at the beginning of Mk. 10.45). Those who are redeemed from the system of “tyranny” and “lording over” others into the system of service are called to follow Jesus in serving others, especially the poor and the marginalized. Such service to the powerless and marginalized challenges the powerful. The disciples of Jesus engage in subversive practice of power in contrast to “lords” and “tyrants” who are enslaved to power and authority. With their freedom from the system of enslavement to power and authority, they become willing servants or slaves of others. Thus, the community of the kingdom of God is a subversive community to the structures of power and authority of this world.

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