The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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A Christian Humanist Reading of Mark 11:12-25

I realize I have not been keeping up with blogging as of late, but I plan to start posting again soon. Honestly, I just have so many ideas of blog posts right now, that I’m having trouble focusing on one topic to sit down and write. In the meantime, here is an excellent article by Jens Zimmerman at Trinity Western University here in Canada, analyzing the scriptural passage regarding Jesus turning over the tables in the temple. It’s long but worth it.

A Christian Humanist Reading of Mark 11:12-25

by JZ on February 4, 2013

A Christian Humanist Reading of Mark 11:12-25

While listening to an excellent sermon on this passage, I was reminded again that Christianity’s belief in Jesus as the Messiah, who embodies and completes God’s purposes for the nation of Israel, is an all-inclusive humanism. You recall the story: the day after the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus, being hungry, curses a fig tree, whose leaves had indicated the possibility of many fruits but offered none. The next day, Jesus returns to the temple, and in the gentile court, now filled with sellers of sacrificial animals and money changers, he overturns tables, brings to a halt the sacrificial system in at least one corner of the temple court, and justifies his action by quoting a passage from Isaiah 56:7: “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for al peoples.” With this citation, Jesus takes up the ancient prophet’s reminder that God welcomes the Gentile foreigner who wants to draw near to God (56:6). Moreover, Jesus’s listeners would surely know that this passage is nestled within a larger context of God’s admonition that not sacrifice but “maintaining justice,” and “doing what is right” pleases the God of Israel (56:1).

Jesus had been to the temple the evening before to check it out. Hence, on two levels, we can assume that his action is premeditated and symbolic. On the narrative level, we know that a theologically motivated storyteller such as Mark has purposefully mentioned that Jesus had already inspected the temple the night before. Therefore his subsequent actions, which culminate in violently interrupting the customary temple activities the next day because the temple had been turned into a “den of robbers,” indicate that he had at least a night to plan this action. On a theological level, the symbolism indicates Jesus’ status as a prophet. After all, prophets traditionally call Israel back to the nation’s intended purpose of being a model of God’s intended humanity to the world. Whenever Israel deviates from this course and begins to abandon God and adopt the inhumane customs of other societies, prophets show up to warn Israel by means of highly symbolic actions. Jesus curses the fig tree, and the tree withers and dies. It is important that we read about the drying up of the tree, whose foliage had promised fruit but delivered none, after the temple action. Why? Because the entire episode is meant to prepare the reader for Jesus’s claim that he himself is the climax of God’s covenant with Israel.

So here is the Christian humanist interpretation of this passage: at least one plausible way of interpreting the Old Testament is that God elected a people to begin in concrete, historical and relational manner his universal paideia, his education of humanity toward godlikeness. God, in other words, aimed at the unity of the human race, both with him and with one another. On this reading, Israel, even as the chosen people set apart by God, were on a mission to bring unity and humaneness to all nations. Many passages in Isaiah testify to this purpose (eg. Isaiah 49:6 “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”), and Jesus’s citation of Isaiah 56:6-7 and Jeremiah 7:11 in the synoptic accounts of his temple action indicate his overall motivation: Israel’s sacrificial system and temple practices had come to obscure God’s intent of drawing all of humanity to him, beyond any ethnic divisions. Especially Jeremiah 7:1 – 8:3, evoked by Jesus, contains a typical prophetic indictment of Israel’s propensity to turn God’s gracious provision of his presence into boundary lines against others. Instead of becoming a blessing to the nations and drawing them toward God, Israel, more often than not, used God’s election to prop themselves up as fortress of self-righteous piety, eagerly waiting for God to send his Messiah who would confirm their elect status.  Thus Jesus’s prophetic anger, upon finding that the Gentile court, the area where non-Israelites could draw near to God, had turned into a warehouse for a sacrificial system that served to justify God’s nation in its own eyes, even while living contrary to his will – in essence, the very accusation Jeremiah levels against the people of his own day.

Now we can also understand the significance of the dried up fig tree.  Recall the order of events in the narrative: Jesus encounters a fig tree that is green but bears no fruit. He curses it, and it dries up and dies.  He goes to the temple, which is full of religious activity but does not bear the fruit God is hungry for – all of humanity drawing near to the very source of life that created it. The religion of Israel had not become a blessing to the nations, as little as the foliage of the fig-tree had resulted in fruit for the hungry traveller. Hence the tree is destroyed. The same logic applies to the temple. God is in the process of replacing it through Jesus himself, who will be the mediating, priestly, sin-forgiving and restorative presence of God to everyone who wants to come, beyond any racial, ethnic boundaries. In a highly literary culture, it is surely no accident that a “dry tree” is also mentioned in Isaiah 56: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people;” and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.’”  Thus Mark’s narrative conveys the prophetic judgment:  the Temple practices of Jesus’s day find no place for the despise Gentile, who cannot produce biological life. But in doing so…

View the rest of the article here: A Christian Humanist Reading of Mark 11:12-25.


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