We have come to the most widely-known eight days in all of human history, called Holy Week by Christians. It began yesterday, Palm Sunday, as we read the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the crowds cheering as if they were welcoming a king, and it will continue on through Jesus' last night with his disciples, his arrest and mock trial, his crucifixion, death and burial. And then his resurrection will change everything, for everyone, forever. So we are familiar with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday (or if not, you soon will be), but what about the other days? What took place on the day after Jesus' royal entry into Jerusalem? And on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday?
This week, we will try to walk day by day through the events of the corresponding days of Jesus' life. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not particularly concerned with telling their stories in a way that would allow us to put together a nice, exact historical reconstruction of exactly what happened at each point during the week. That’s fine because those aren’t the most important pieces. They were rightly more focused on getting their points about Jesus across than they were about trivia games we might like to play centuries later about what happened on which day. Nonetheless, we can still put together a plausible sequence of events for the week, and doing so is our goal as we continue in this journey of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following our Lord.
So for today, Monday in Holy Week:
According to Mark’s telling, after Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of the crowds, he went to the temple courts. Since it was already late in the day, he went to stay the night in Bethany with the twelve before returning to the temple the next morning (assumably, Monday).
On their way to the temple, Jesus approached a fig tree but did not find any fruit on it. Then came one of the scenes which I am sure I will never see painted on the wall of a children’s Sunday School class.
In the ways that we typically think of Jesus, we would be likely to expect his reaction to finding no fruit on the fig tree to be something like one of the following:
- Maybe he would look at the tree, have a tear well up in his eye while a bluebird comes and lands on his shoulder to tweet a song in a minor key over Jesus’ sadness that this tree had not been able to properly produce its fruit. Jesus could have meekly mourned over the sad tree.
- Or, of course, perhaps Jesus would just look intently at the tree, command it to produce some fruit, and it would instantly have jumbo, juicy figs for all of the disciples to share. Jesus could have powerfully, victoriously healed the unfruitful tree.
But Jesus did neither of those things. Instead of mourning over the tree or healing it, he cursed it: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
If I had been one of the twelve, I surely would have stood there thinking, “Ouch, Teacher. Hunger pangs make you a little crabby this morning?”
But, being as capable of a storyteller as Mark was, he didn't allow us to stay there, wondering about the stability of Jesus' emotional state. (If that was the point, and he was that crabby after missing breakfast, what would he have been like after fasting for forty days in the desert?) Instead, he gave us one of his story-sandwiches, where he began one story, moved to to another, then came back to the first in order to point out the links between the two.
In this story-sandwich, this incident with the poor little fig tree is the bread, while the meat is what Jesus did when he arrived in the temple.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:15-17, NIV)
(So we have two consecutive stories of Jesus that don't get painted on the walls of children's Sunday School rooms.) In order to understand what's happening here, we have to understand that Jesus was not staging of protest of the commercialization of people's worship in the temple. Perhaps, if Mark hadn't connected the temple story to the fig tree, we might be able to come away with that as the full meaning. Instead, since Jesus' encounter with the fig tree ended in a curse for the tree's failure to be and do what it was created for, Jesus then proceeded to do the same thing in the temple. The temple existed to symbolize God's dwelling with Israel for the sake of the world, but its leaders had turned it into a place to promote violence toward outsiders and injustice toward Israel's own people. So–just as Jesus' words to the tree stopped its natural processes, his brief but symbolic words and actions in the temple stopped the course of events in the place that was the center of Jewish life.
Mark wraps up the story-sandwich as the disciples return to the city the next morning and pass by the same tree, now withered from the roots. He wants us to get the point: Jesus' action in the temple was a warning that, if it continued failing to be and do what it was created for, the same fate awaited it that came to the tree. And to make sure we don't miss the lesson, Mark puts an exclamation point on his story-sandwich through Jesus' comments when Peter noticed that the fig tree Jesus cursed had withered:
“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
Again, remember that this is part of the sandwich, rather than a stand-alone teaching. Jesus isn't saying that Peter and the others could also learn to do cool things like wither fruit trees, make mountains move, or anything else that they decide on a prayer-whim. No, the point is still the meat of this story-sandwich: the temple. When Jesus says, "this mountain," I imagine that he also pointed a finger toward the temple mount. He's teaching the disciples to pray that God's new order would replace the old and that, inconceivable as it may have seemed to them, the temple was nearing a time when it would be no more.
Jesus' dire warnings about the temple came to pass in 70 AD when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, including the temple's destruction.
Also, just as important for our journey through Holy Week is to realize that because of this and Jesus' procession into Jerusalem as a king the previous day, his impending death was now inevitable. No one could ride into Jerusalem as a king and proceed to say and to the things toward the temple which Jesus said and did–and be allowed to live. When we read the story in this light, we begin to get the sense that Jesus was not a victim of Roman and Jewish injustice when he died on the cross; rather, he seems to be orchestrating the story exactly as he saw fit.
A Prayer for Monday in Holy Week:
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer
[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]