The New Testament contains four gospels, all telling the story of Jesus with a different perspective but the same purpose. Some differences are obvious, such as Luke writing for Gentile readers and Matthew for Jewish readers. It is refreshing to see the different writers’ viewpoints and their choices on putting the details together. But it is in the differences that we gain a fuller picture of Jesus and his remarkable teachings.
Jesus entered Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday to joyous shouts of expectation from the crowds and deep suspicion from the religious establishment. The city was crowded with pilgrims from outside Judea and Galilee for the highest holy days of the year. This was the time of the great sacrifice for all of Israel, when the sins of the past year were atoned for and a new year began.
Of the many Temple courtyards, the Courtyard of the Gentiles was the outermost and the only place where non-Jews were allowed. Any Gentile found in the other courtyards would be killed. It was this courtyard where religious commerce had been established and had become very profitable. Any sacrifice, from a dove to a lamb, had to be inspected for flaws before it was offered. Many of those sacrifices were found unacceptable and – no surprise – there were acceptable animals for sale in this outer court for a healthy price. Likewise, money offerings and the annual Temple tax could not be paid in the common coinage of the empire, or in less than silver coinage, so there were money changers, who, for a fee, would provide the acceptable coinage. Much of this “official” religious commerce was owned or taxed by the high priest’s administration. Some of the lucrative profits benefited the Temple operating expenses and upkeep, while some was gain for powerful individuals. But more than merchandising, the Courtyard of the Gentiles was crowded, noisy and little different from the bustling streets of Jerusalem.
The one place reserved for worship and as a witness to non-Jews had become more of a tourist attraction. No wonder Jesus overturned the tables of money changers and booths where doves and lambs were sold. Jesus is angry as he quotes from the ancient prophets that God’s house has been turned into a den of thieves when it is supposed to be a house of prayer for all people (Jeremiah 7:11; Isaiah 56:7).
Years ago I visited Salisbury Cathedral in England as a tourist and was greatly impressed by the architecture, windows, magnificent sculptures and incredible steeple. Later that evening I returned for the worship of music and prayers called evensong. I was met at the entrance by a doorkeeper who asked, “Are you coming to sightsee or worship?” She knew the difference and was gently guarding the worship hour! The music reverberated through the vaulted ceilings and the prayers moved me to tears as we sought God’s healing for the suffering of our world and his intervention in the hatred and violence that plagues the earth.
Jesus is in the last days of his earthly life, drawing near to the cross and with his heart breaking, because his Father’s house is violated by triviality and self-serving commerce. Has anything changed in the last two thousand years?
Of all places, the Temple should have been a place where God’s presence could be felt, where a broken heart could find peace and a sense that God is near even in the madness of this world. Against the background of the religious merchandisers, “the blind and the lame came to (Jesus) in the Temple and he cured them” (v. 14). Jesus’ healing of the sick, coupled with “the children crying out in the Temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’” angered the religious authorities (v. 15). Again, Jesus answers their fury with a quote from the Scriptures they claim to believe: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself?” (Psalm 8:2). Scholars have suggested that these were not little children, but disciples of various rabbis’ who taught in the Temple courts and affectionately called their disciples “my children.” The Apostle John sometime referred to those he taught as “children” (1 John 2:1,18,28). At Passover there was always a heightened expectation that this was the year the Messiah will come to Jerusalem.
Mark seems to change direction when he moves abruptly to Jesus’ withering of a fig tree on the road between Jerusalem and Bethany. There has been much debate over Jesus’ anger and destruction of the tree because it had no fruit. Some have pointed out that not only is Jesus’ anger out of character, but this was not the season for figs. So we ask: Is Jesus truly human like us? Was this story put in the wrong chronological order? Why does Matthew’s version say the tree withered immediately instead of the next day?
My take is that each gospel writer was trying to include stories that revealed Jesus’ key teachings more than keeping a meticulous time line. Luke 13:6-9 also records a powerful story of a fig tree that failed to bear fruit, and Luke used Mark as a key source for his later gospel. Instead of arguing about Jesus’ temper or the timing of this fig tree event, we should focus on the meaning. Jesus is fully human in this earthly ministry and he was often angered by the injustice and inequities of life. Is this a kind of parable in real life experience, a metaphor about a tree that is no longer fulfilling its purpose for existence? Is Jesus planting a seed of understanding that will not grow to maturity in the disciples’ minds until after Jesus’ resurrection? Is Jesus using this action to display God’s displeasure for a Temple and priesthood that no longer offer the fruit of God’s love and redemption to a dying world? Apply that to our time: What becomes of a church and people that corrupts the gospel with a focus on works, rituals or societal domination instead of God’s grace?
My interpretation is influenced by Jesus’ final words in this text: “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (v. 22). Do not reduce this statement to a simplistic “As a person of faith you will get what you want!” Consider the word “faith” carefully. Jesus is teaching with the Temple in the background, the “house of prayer.” But in that Temple there is so much going on that has little to do with worshiping God. The office of high priest was “bought and paid for” and there was competition for personal profit in the outer court. Jesus was angry because there were religious people and practices that erected a barrier between God and people, True prayer, the honest opening of one’s heart to God, is built on personal faith and not a religious system.
Go back to verse 13: “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Worship is not about us, it’s about God whose grace saves us. Prayer is not about getting what you want … it’s about seeking what God wants for all his creation. Within a few days we will witness God’s love and desire that we become his children through the seeming impossibility of the cross. Our priority is to lovingly offer others the gift of God’s love, not through religious structures and rituals, but through the Christ who died on a cross and came back from death.
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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