The Moneychangers and the Fig Tree
Mark 11:11-25 is a pretty intriguing passage. It’s one that tends to cross my mind every now and then, and credit where credit is due, a lot of light about its meaning has been shed to me because of a Thesis written by one Dana Ouellette. I read it a couple of years ago, and unfortunately it can no longer be found online (although the abstract can be read here), but I learned a lot from it which I feel is relevant to the Church today.
The interesting thing about the narrative is the way it combines the story of Jesus’ outrage at the Temple moneychangers together with His cursing of the fig tree. The two are not meant to be considered separately; the author of Mark wrote his version of the Gospel as a story… it was meant to be communicated orally to the greater population of Israel, most of whom were likely illiterate, and who would have seen the significance of two seemingly-distinct story segments tied together by narrative.
It’s important to dispel a couple of misconceptions regarding this passage. The first is the common idea that Jesus lost His temper upon seeing the moneychangers in the Temple. In this portrait, He walked in, saw them going about their business, and flipped out. Not according to verse 11 of this chapter. Bearing in mind that Mark was the earliest Gospel to be written (circa 70AD), this very easily-missed prologue states that Jesus was quite aware of the moneychangers’ presence in the Temple the day before He performed His demonstration. Far from being a spur of the moment action, Jesus’ attack on the “den of robbers” was indeed a premeditated one.
The second misconception, perhaps not immediately relevant to the point of the passage but important to note nonetheless, is that Jesus was violent in His demonstration. Certainly Mark’s narrative states that Jesus “did not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple,” but instruction like this does not necessitate violent action. John’s account is the only version which states that Jesus used a whip while driving the people out, but it is not clear on how He used it and certainly doesn’t infer that He brought harm to people. The same version states that Jesus drove out the animals present as well as the moneychangers, and the whip may simply have served the purpose of causing the animals to flee. In any case, the inference is there that although Jesus chastised the merchants, He did not inflict unnecessary suffering upon them.
Back to the narrative itself… exactly why was Jesus so vehemently angered at the moneychangers? And what significance does the story of the fig tree have to this?
The answer is most probably that the merchants were not simply doing honest trade. Not only were they mixing business into a place dedicated to worship, which might not have been enough reason in itself to provoke such a strong reaction from the Son of God, but their trade itself was a corrupt practise. Since the Markan narrative was directed at a peasant population, the portrait of this kind of business may very much be one which caused businessmen to become wealthy mostly at the expense of the poorer sector of society, particularly farmers whose land would have been tolled to provide their produce to richer landowners.
This may be where the symbol of the fig tree comes in. The fig tree, a farming plant, a bearer of fruit, was not found to have any fruit at all by Jesus in this story. Jesus’ reaction is a destructive one; “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” This happens before the Temple incident, before Jesus overthrows the tables. Upon returning the Bethany next day, Jesus and His disciples indeed find that the fig tree has now withered and died.
The fig tree was previously understood, particularly from the preachings of OT prophets, to have symbolised the State of Israel. Jesus may well have had this in mind as a criticism against the Nation State, but just as importantly is how the symbolism of His action relates to the intertwining Temple event. The fig tree is therefore a symbol for socio-economic corruption, for oppression from the wealthier classes toward the masses, for persecution that leaves people in destitution and poverty. As the Temple event and the withering of the fig tree interpret each other, Jesus is speaking His criticism directly towards those who have allowed the concentration of power to corrupt their hearts at the cost of their fellow man.
I don’t think Jesus is against all ways of gaining money. He does, however, expect us to act responsibly with the wealth that we have, and He certainly doesn’t want us (as this narrative demonstrates) to hoarde it to the extent that we live out our lives at the cost of others. We are expected, as followers of Christ, to live alongside each other under the most moral conditions of socio-economic justice possible.
Beyond this, what does Jesus say when His disciples ask Him about the fig tree?
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.
23 “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
This isn’t just some random comment that Jesus spouts. In the context of the Markan narrative, this is exactly how He expects us to combat the forces of oppression in this world. In a statement that equals in terms of radical nature His teachings of nonviolent resistance in Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus grants us the true weapons of warfare against a corrupt and oppressive world: faith, prayer, and forgiveness.
Notice that Jesus instructs His disciples to stand praying. In ancient times, it was custom to either stand or bow when invoking prayer, but in the context of this passage Jesus uses the position of standing; an active symbol of confrontation and reaction. In the same way Jesus said “turn the other cheek” instead of “back down and walk away,” He says in the Markan text to stand. To combine the spiritual weapons of warfare with a heart set very much against the oppression that comes from corrupt individuals in this world. Be it with physical, social, or economic persecution, Jesus expects us very much to return these evils not with physical aggression or violence, but with faithful prayer and forgiveness. But in addition to this, He is also quite expectant that this strategy works. “Believe what you say will come to pass, and it will be done for you.”
What comes from this narrative is a direct encouragement to the disciples of Christ, not just back then but even today, that praying against darkness and meeting it with forgiveness will one day bring about its end. To stand in prayer is to present the world a foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of God. Will we stand in prayer today? Will we have faith that this mountain of evil can be thrown into the sea and drowned?
Perhaps it’s time we started destroying the “fig trees” present among us today.