Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." And His disciples heard it.

So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city.

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away." So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."

- Mark 11:12-26

In yesterday's reading, Jesus made his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. He sent two apostles to get the colt of a donkey, and rode in from the East, from the Mount of Olives. As He did, He was welcomed by people who spread their clothing before Him, and cut branches and spread them on the road as He entered into Jerusalem. They welcomed Him with the words for the expected Messiah, "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!" Jesus entered the temple. When He had "looked around at all things" He returned east to Bethany with His disciples.

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry. And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again." And His disciples heard it. This is a puzzling story, and commentary has also seen it this way. It can be read as a symbolic story - the fig tree being often an image of Israel itself. But the tree will be a useful teaching tool for the disciples, and its symbolism that of spiritual fruitfulness, or lack of it. In this fig tree we find a kind of alternate symbolism to the colt from yesterday's reading: the tree can be seen as a symbol for Israel (as it is found to be so elsewhere in Scripture), while the unbroken colt which Jesus rode into Jerusalem is symbolic of the Gentiles who will come to faith through Him.

So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Throughout Mark's Gospel, we have read of quite a different Jesus than the picture in this scene. Here, His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem is followed by the behavior of a king, someone who is fully in charge and in authority. Without an army, without military might, Jesus acts as the "son of David," a king of Israel. It is an extraordinary act.

Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city. In his actions, Jesus quotes from prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. My study bible points out that Jesus "disrupts business and makes a sweeping condemnation of the religious system, yet He is untouched. The religious rulers and the Roman soldiers are close by, but all are paralyzed. In the light of the imagery in the account of the fig tree, the temple is all leaves and no fruit, a picture of the nation itself." Jesus' welcome into Jerusalem (see yesterday's reading) suggests a population starved for the spiritual leadership they need - and we can use the word "starved" also in conjunction with the story of the fig tree without fruit. What do we seek when we pray and worship? Here in the temple, there is a system in place which tells the people what they must do, what they must offer, but what is it offering to them? This, of course, is always a question for the Church that is established in Jesus' name.

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree which You cursed has withered away." So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. . . " A note in my study bible says, "The cursing of the fig tree also demonstrates the power of faith in God and prayer. This mountain probably refers to the Mount of Olives, but Jesus speaks not of its physical relocation, but of great deeds done through undoubting faith. Neither Jesus nor the disciples moved any actual mountains, but they did turn society upside down with the message of the Kingdom. We all need such faith in our struggle for full repentance and life in Christ . . . We can have assured faith in answered prayer, according to St. John Chrysostom, when we ask things worthy of the Lord and strive for holiness. Of course, human requests neither limit nor control God's omniscient freedom." A note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible reads, "Jesus emphasizes not power in faith but the power of God, his illustration being figurative. Faith will command only according to God's will. What God wills is possible both to himself and to the man who shares his will." Surely we will see Jesus pray in the Garden for the cup to be passed from Him, but "nevertheless, not My will but Thine be done." The words in this passage are puzzling unless we understand what is happening symbolically through this reading and the ones just preceding and afterward. Jesus is establishing a kingdom in the world that will shake up all the powers of the world and displace them. The apostles may not live to see that manifest fully, but as surely as they viewed the withered fig tree, Christ's power was moving mountains that would affect the world - even in their lifetimes. The cleansing of the temple is the evidence of Jesus' authority that would have its greatest and far reaching effects through the faith of His followers, and a world would shift and change. "Moving a mountain," I believe, must be seen in this context. And the verses that follow teach us more about prayer. We must also recall that the word in the Greek translated here as "believe" is more akin to "trust." To "pray" is to literally "exchange wishes" with God in the original Greek etymology (προσεύχομαι).

"And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." We get the affirmation here of the supremacy of the will of God, and our following and trusting in that will. To forgive is to let go - to release or send away in the original Greek. This seems to be an immediate caution against a prayer for vengeance -- what it truly does is release justice to God. Therefore what we pray for is God's justice, God's mercy, God's righteousness, and the will to see that through and to be helped to come to an understanding of what that is and means. My study bible says, "A call to forgive follows the promise of nearly unlimited possibilities of faith in prayer. What can deter faith that is able to move mountains? Failure to forgive -- the greatest hindrance to knowing God. Not only does unforgiveness cripple our prayers, but even the Father in heaven does not forgive the unforgiving. As the fig tree is rejected for bearing no fruit, so are unforgiving people rejected." Of course the words of Jesus reflect the teaching of the Lord's Prayer.

Jesus is teaching His disciples once more about the tremendous power in prayer. We must not forget what is happening: His entry into Jerusalem and His popular welcome and the cleansing of the temple -- which will stir the authorities against Him and lead to His Passion and final confrontation with their power. It is important to understand what it is to move mountains, and the mission which He is entrusting to the apostles, the "good fight" they will lead after His death and resurrection. This is a kingdom of faith - not vengeance and retribution, and this battle of faith must be fought in a certain way, and by trusting in God. Mountains are moved in ways too far beyond us to control with our own coercive power, but rather through the prayers of those with true faith allied to the will of God. And this is what we must see here, what we must understand for ourselves. Jesus comes offering a kingdom that bears fruit, with its substance given to all. Can we accept it and build it as He would have us do? Do our churches today feed us with spiritual fruit, and do we bear the fruit He asks and wants? Can we share in that faith that can move mountains while it offers forgiveness and seeks the will of God, God's righteousness? Let us consider the momentous events we read about, and apply them to ourselves, and Jesus' teachings to today. What is it to truly be "a house of prayer for all nations?"