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Mark XX: Fig Leaves, Faith, and Forgiveness - Mark 11:1-26

The main theme of Mark 11:1-26 is Jesus’ judgment of Israel’s worship, and the alternative that He sets forth. Once again, Mark sandwiches two related stories together: we go from the temple to the tree to the temple to the tree and back once more to the temple. The point of mixing these two events together is that they each help interpret one another, and the interpretive key is that the fig tree stands for the temple. This means that the bottom line isn’t good, because the fig tree is all leaf and no fruit, symbolic of a temple full of outwardly pious activity, but where the heart of true worship has withered away.

Mark helps prepare us for this by the way He tells the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, notably triumphal in the other gospels, but quite ambiguous in Mark. What is striking about Mark’s account is what’s missing: there’s no specific reference to fulfilled prophecy (as in John). No record of a confrontation with the Pharisees (Luke). Mark doesn’t even specify that the crowds are referring to Jesus with their Hosannas (Matthew). Maybe they’re simply reciting Psalm 118, which is what all Jewish pilgrims did when they came near Jerusalem at feast time. Maybe what we think of as the Triumphal Entry is all leaves, and no figs.

That’s the symbolic point that Jesus makes the next morning as they return into the city, after having spent the night a couple miles away in Bethany. Jesus is making a point about appearance versus reality, so Mark makes sure that we know that it wasn’t fig season – this isn’t a lesson about finding snacks in the ancient near east. It’s a symbolic prophetic action about hiding sin under the appearance of holiness, and it comes straight out of the pages of the prophets, in passages such as Micah 7 and Jeremiah, with roots all the way back in Genesis 3. When Jesus sees the fig tree in leaf, He sees a promise of good things, but when He finds nothing, He speaks a word of woe to the fig tree before heading into Jerusalem to do the same thing to the temple.

After the investigation the day before, Jesus brings judgment to the temple courts. He drives out the merchants and flips over the tables of the moneychangers and stops the flow of traffic in the temple. In particular, Jesus is furious that the temple leaders have transformed a house of prayer for all the nations into a den of robbers. The temple had become a place where mammon was worshiped, instead of the true God, and the greatest robbery being committed was the fact that true worship had been stolen from God’s people by greedy idolaters.

On the third day, they passed by the fig tree again, and overnight it had withered away from the roots. When Peter points it out, Jesus responds in a way that only makes sense if He’s actually talking about the temple. Jesus isn’t saying, “Have faith in God, and you too can kill trees.” No, the fig tree stands for the temple, and Peter’s consternation stems from the fact that Jesus’ actions show that He is prepared to destroy the temple, something we will see again in Mark 13.

Here’s Peter’s concern: if you kill the fig tree, where will you get figs? If you destroy the temple, where will people go to pray and be forgiven? If we see in the fig tree a prophetic parable about the temple and Israel’s worship, then that’s the right question to ask.

And if that’s the right question, then Jesus’ answer makes perfect sense. The power of prayer comes not from location, but from faith, the kind of faith that doesn’t doubt. When the Church comes together to pray in faith, God hears and answers, even if there is no temple in Jerusalem.

And how do I obtain God’s forgiveness when there’s no longer any place to offer sacrificial offerings? Sacrifice your desires for your own justice and vengeance. Forgive others the way you want God to forgive you. What Israel thought could only happen in the temple can actually happen anywhere, through faith in Jesus and through the forgiveness that He makes possible.

So for us today, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: Am I bearing fruit for God, or do I just have nice leaves? Have I come because this house is a house of prayer, or because I want something from God or His people? Is worship a commercial transaction to enable me to purchase righteousness and salvation?

And do you have enough faith in Jesus to offer forgiveness to your enemies? If your life is bearing this fruit, if grudges are let go, slights forgotten, and if you even forgive outright evil that has been done to you, this is one of the surest and best signs that there is more on your branches than just leaves.

Jesus is hungry for spiritual fruit. Have faith in God, and bear fruit for God.

Posted on Wednesday, August 15, 2018 by CJ Bowen