Withered from the Roots

Withered from the Roots | Mark 11:8-21

“Many people spread their robes on the road, and others spread leafy branches cut from the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed kept shouting: Hosanna! He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One! The coming kingdom of our father David is blessed! Hosanna in the highest heaven! And He went into Jerusalem and into the temple complex. After looking around at everything, since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve. The next day when they came out from Bethany, He was hungry. After seeing in the distance a fig tree with leaves, He went to find out if there was anything on it. When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, because 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. They came to Jerusalem, and He went into the temple complex and began to throw out those buying and selling in the temple. He overturned the money changers’ tables and the chairs of those selling doves, and would not permit anyone to carry goods through the temple complex. Then He began to teach them: “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of thieves! ” Then the chief priests and the scribes heard it and started looking for a way to destroy Him. For they were afraid of Him, because the whole crowd was astonished by His teaching. And whenever evening came, they would go out of the city. Early in the morning, as they were passing by, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Then Peter remembered and said to Him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that You cursed is withered.”” (Mark 11:8-21 HCSB)

Surprise! Some of you may be shocked to find that I am continuing our study in Mark, this week, and some of you aren’t shocked, at all. In my mind, all of our studies are somehow linked to Easter and the resurrection. That is the hope of our salvation and the affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. If you read the focal passage, above, then you also recognize that I have included a few verses from last week’s study. That was intentional and not the just an oversight. Remember, context is everything. Context – context – context.

Easter is a time of remembrance and celebration. We remember Jesus sacrifice and we celebrate His victory over death and the grave. As mentioned above, the resurrection IS the definitive proof of who Jesus is – the eternal Son of God. Man could not destroy Him and the death could not hold Him. He is the Lord of life and the one who conquered death. Those who put their trust in Him have nothing to fear. In that vein, I want us to stay on track with our study in Mark and to recognize that all of Mark’s stories point us towards this fact – Jesus is the Son of God that takes away the sin of the World.

To begin with, some folks really struggle with this story. They see it as being just about the cursing of a fig tree and out of character for Christ. In fact, they struggle so much with it they avoid it, discount it, deny it ever really happened or relegate it to the realm of an irrelevant story. However, to do so is to miss the point and to fail to see the story’s critical relevance, for them and for us. So, I hope you’ll stay with me as we delve into this story. We will consider Mark’s design, look back on Old Testament prophecy for background and then consider the deep, underlying tones of this challenging passage.

First, it is important to notice that Mark uses his familiar “sandwich” story telling technique. We’ve seen this several times in his gospel (see Mark 5, for example). Here, the story of the cursed fig tree sandwiches the story of the Temple cleansing. To understand both stories, we need to consider them together and in that context. The cursing of the fig tree helps us understand the cleansing of the Temple and the cleansing of the Temple helps us understand the cursing of the fig tree.

When taken out of context, the cursing of the fig tree does seem a bit out of character for Jesus. This may be due to the fact that this is the only time we ever encounter Him pronouncing an actual curse upon something or someone.

As Jesus and the disciples leave Bethany the next morning, Jesus is hungry and notices a fig tree, off in the distance. The tree has leaves and should have early figs (paggim), small green fig “buds” that form as the tree begins to put on leaves and fall off shortly afterward. This typically would occur in mid to late March and into early April. Since Mark notes that “it was not the season for figs” and we know it is the week of Passover, we can assume these “early figs” are what Jesus references and finds missing. The presence of leaves promise fruit, but none exists.

Jesus words are direct, sharp and firm. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” Mark notes, His disciples heard it. If we stop here then it is difficult to understand and justify Jesus’ actions. If He is simply upset at the absence of figs when He is hungry, then it is out of character for Him. If you know Jesus, then you know that cannot be the case. Something else must be going on here, but what? Stay with me, it should become clear.

Jesus arrives at the Temple complex in Jerusalem, and we see an immediate response: He began to throw out those buying and selling, He overturned the money changers’ tables and the chairs of those selling doves. He would not even permit anyone to carry goods through the Temple complex. Mark’s words, Temple complex, indicate that Jesus’ actions are occurring in the outer area or the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only part of the Temple where Gentiles were permitted and that is crucial to our understanding of these events.

To understand these events, we need to consider the background we find in Jeremiah and Isaiah. There are specific references in Jeremiah 7 and 8 and Isaiah 56 regarding God’s judgment upon Israel. The Jeremiah passage includes specific references to a withered fig tree with no figs, false trust in the Temple, oppression of foreigner, the fatherless, the widow and the shedding of innocent blood. Consider this: “Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.” This is the Lord’s declaration.” (Jeremiah 7:11 HCSB) If Jesus quotes from this Jeremiah passage, then it would seem that He is warning the Jewish leadership that God’s judgment, as detailed in Jeremiah 7 & 8, is coming to fruition and will soon be fulfilled.

But, He’s not done. In Isaiah 56, “This is what the Lord says: Preserve justice and do what is right, for My salvation is coming soon, and My righteousness will be revealed. Happy is the man who does this, anyone who maintains this, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. No foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord should say, “The Lord will exclude me from His people”; and the eunuch should not say, “Look, I am a dried-up tree.” For the Lord says this: “For the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold firmly to My covenant, I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give each of them an everlasting name that will never be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord minister to Him, love the name of Yahweh and become His servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold firmly to My covenant — I will bring them to My holy mountain and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This is the declaration of the Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel: “I will gather to them still others besides those already gathered.”” (Isaiah 56:1-8 HCSB)

So, Jesus has come to His house and has found it to be exactly what He had told Isaiah and Jeremiah – it was a den of robbers and not a house of prayer for all nations. Why? Not so much because they had made it convenient to exchange Roman coins for local coins or buy approved sacrificial animals but because they depended on the Temple more than they depended on and trusted in God. Because they acted, or put on “leaves”, as if they were obedient to God while they were missing the actual fruit, or figs, of righteousness. They were oppressing the people, not acting as priests on their behalf. The foreigners and eunuchs were excluded from worship, but they were more obedient to God and firmly embraced His covenant. Jesus had come to judge them and to set His house in order.

While we have seen growing opposition to Jesus throughout Mark’s gospel, there can be little doubt that the events of this day set in motion the chief priests and scribes plan to destroy Him. Why? Because they were afraid of Him as the whole crowd was blown away by His command of the Scriptures, His teaching and His undeniable authority. The Lord God, has come to reclaim His house and to restore it as a place of prayer and worship for the nations.

I think we need to let that sink in, a bit more. My house will be a house of prayer for ALL nations. Again, this is the Greek term “ethnos” and means all ethnicities, tribes, peoples or nations. The Lord is not the God of Israel, alone – He is the Lord God of all creation. Jesus is NOT the savior of the Jews only, He is the savior of the people – ALL NATIONS. Jesus has upset the “status quo” cart of the chief priests and scribes and they aren’t happy. They were happy, fulfilled and satisfied with the condition of the Temple and their relationship with God. They must have believed they were being obedient and loyal to God by excluding and oppressing people who only wanted to know, serve and obey God.

I am appalled by those who claim the name of Christ today and follow in the footsteps of these men. We are often more concerned with obedience in the minutia, the debatable areas of our beliefs, than we are about those who are oppressed, excluded and marginalized by the arrogant abuse of authority and maintaining of the status quo. We have those who claim the name of Christ while pursuing a white supremacist ideology and militant agenda. This MUST not be. We have people who claim to follow Jesus but cling more tightly to their personal rights than they do to the Son of God. What do we desire more, our rights or His will? With that in mind, consider what happens next.

Each evening, Jesus and the disciples would return to Bethany. Early the next morning as they passed the fig tree, Peter notices that it is withered from the roots up and is shocked. He calls Jesus’ attention to it, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed is withered.” He’s shocked by the results, Jesus isn’t. What God curses withers and dies. Within one generation, the beautiful Temple that had adorned Jerusalem for centuries but was judged unfit by its Lord would lie as a pile of rubble among the ashes.

What will happen to the American church if we refuse to fall in repentance before our Lord? If we continue in our arrogant disregard for God’s will? If we continue to oppress the foreigner, the widow and the fatherless. Three issues we are facing today in our own churches. Our churches ought to be examples of multi-ethnic worship and a blending of all peoples into the children of God. Our churches and homes ought to be havens for single mothers, widows and children caught up in “the system.” If Jesus walked into this house of prayer, would He be pleased with what He finds? Or would we hear words that would cause us to “wither from the roots”?

Peter was shocked by what he saw but we must not be. We must heed the warning. It is hard for those who have grown up in this culture to see how broken it can be, so let me ask a few questions that, I hope, will draw your attention to the underlying issues. When you glance around your church, do you see a reflection of yourself or do you see a reflection of the world? We must be a multi-ethnic church that loves and embraces all who come to Christ. Do you see single mothers and widows who are being encouraged and supported or do you see them ignored, excluded or rejected? We must be a place of refuge and rescue for the hurt and rejected. Do you see the fatherless loved, encouraged and supported or do they cower in fear or stay away? We must be a loving home for the fatherless and a place of inclusion for the excluded.

It is hard for us to hear our Savior utter the words of a curse. It seems to out of character. But is it, really? If we refuse to obey God’s will, then we should not be shocked when His curse falls upon us. Instead of falling victim to His curse, let us fall to our knees in humble repentance and obedience before Him!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: