Monday, August 17, 2009

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

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘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.’

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘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. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

- Mark 11:12-26

Upon first reading of this passage, I must confess I become greatly perplexed. Why should a fig tree be withered so? What does this teach us? But then one must look carefully at the scripture and ask questions. Why should the story of the fig tree be juxtaposed with the cleansing of the temple?

My study bible points out that the tree is in full foliage - indicating fruitbearing - although it's not the season for figs. So, symbolically speaking, we have a tree that appears to be full and yet has no real fruit, in other words, just an image of a fruit-bearing tree, a false image. It could also be that, as Jesus seems to have been muttering to himself, he saw in this image a symbol of something he may have had on his mind. My study bible also reports the fig tree to have been a scriptural symbol of Israel itself (Hos. 9:10). This may appear to make some sense out of this passage and its clear juxtaposition of the story of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. We are talking about a kind of fruitlessness that has the appearance of abundance. So, as Jesus goes into the temple, we could consider these thoughts to have been on his mind. Therefore, the cleansing of the temple comes to us as a story - or as an act - in light of this tree that feigns abundance yet is not bearing fruit.

Jesus of course cleanses the temple in this famous story, so vivid in its images. Jesus turns over the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of the dove-sellers; he won't let anybody bring more goods into the temple. Although no person is hurt, these images are those of violence, of real confrontation, and they are kind of shocking to us. After all, the image of the peaceful messiah has just occurred prior to this one: Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem not on a war-horse but on a donkey. We must recall also, that he went to the temple to find it deserted. So, although the fig tree appears full, there is no fruit. There was no one in the temple after his ride into Jerusalem, and yet today it is full of the hustle and bustle of people preparing for the Passover, with all the things for sale in this preparation. And yet for Jesus, it is not a temple, not a house of prayer, but a den of thieves. The analogy to the fig tree, then, becomes more clear.

And there is an important message there also for us as individual believers, about our own "fruitfulness" and our own need for cleansing, and how the two are linked. It seems to me that this passage teaches us that the two go hand in hand: if we find ourselves unfruitful we must look to that which we need to take care of within ourselves and pay attention to our own business. Is there something we're practicing that we need to take a look at? Some form of idolatry - of all the myriad forms that this can take - which we're practicing that we spend our time and energy on instead of the things that are truly spiritually fruitful? What is it that preoccupies us? Remember that the money-changers are exchanging the Roman currency for temple currency because of the image on the coin. And yet, Jesus is accusing them of practicing another form of idolatry. This great concern for commerce is hurtful to the poor who cannot afford the better sacrifices.

As they pass again by the fig tree, it has withered. His disciples point this out to Jesus. His words have had their effect! So, we have the violence in the temple and violence also in the image of the withered fig tree! What Jesus points out to them in response to the withered fig tree before them is the great power in prayer. I think this is a great key to this passage. When we practice prayer and relationship, we are linking with a tremendous power. We must not forget that. Prayer is not something we repeat by rote as we attend a service, or say a prayer in order to do a duty of some sort or simply participate in a liturgy as a valued "task" of some sort. Prayer is powerful, it links us with that which is most powerful, which can create something of nothing. Therefore how we enter into that prayer is probably the most important thing we have to think about.

Jesus points out that the temple is to be a "house of prayer" for all nations, and yet it has been made into a den of thieves. He curses the fig tree and it withers; and then in the sight of it proclaims to his disciples the great power of prayer and faith, that it can move mountains. When we enter into prayer, we are linking with a power that is unlike what we know in the world. This power is the ultimate creative power; it can create substance from nothingness, essence from non-existence. Therefore how we approach that power is the most crucial element of our reality as spiritual beings who seek a link with our Creator. Is there some form of idolatry we practice, that gets in the way of this relationship and serves as a stumbling block? Have we lost our focus? Are we failing to do as we should do and seek to practice forgiveness? I think that the practice of forgiveness is little understood if it is not taken as something which teaches us to bring our grievance to God and ask for good judgment. All things must be taken to God in prayer in order to place them in the position of "right-relatedness" or righteousness within us. We wish to be free of the stumbling blocks that would do us harm in this prayer, and keep us from right-relatedness with God, and the rest of the world around us as well. Whether we are individuals who act in our own lives to create or not to create fruitfulness, or we are talking about the great spiritual movements that history - and the scriptures - teach us about, the message is the same. Is there an obstacle in the midst of your fruitfulness that keeps you from bearing the fruit you could bear? What stands in the way of prayer? A full heart open to God? Right-relatedness? In the power of prayer, we risk losing that which we have if we fail to bear the spiritual fruits asked of us. And for that, Jesus says, we must be aware of what we need to cleanse within ourselves, and hold nothing back.

No comments:

Post a Comment