Temple Tantrum

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.”

Setting the Stage

We are almost to the end of the road.

In many ways, we probably fee a little bedraggled. This year, 2021, was supposed to be full of hope- at least more hope than last year. But here we are, walking through this sermon series of on the road with Jesus while we are waiting out a lockdown that has seemed to continue on forever. We may feel a bit like Jesus and his disciples could have. Frustrated, tired, dusty.   

But there’s something that continues to pull us along, even if we are stumbling as we go. Something that continues to push us in the right direction and shows us that wherever we are walking towards offers some sort of hope.

This story is full of emotions. Before the text we read today, comes one of the texts traditionally read on Palm Sunday. It is perhaps the text describing Jesus’ ministry that provides the most public excitement. Even the resurrection does not come with all the yelling crowds. Perhaps the disciples are finally seeing some of the glory that they’ve been expecting on this road with Jesus. Maybe Jesus is even a bit excited that people are finally seeing him as the Messiah- they are getting excited about the work that God may be doing in the world.

But after he thrill of being marched around with crowds crying out with joy about the work that God is doing, Jesus gets off and walks around in the temple. What does he see? We aren’t told… yet. From our perspective Jesus looks around and then leaves. Does his face drop as he enters the temple and sees what is going on? Does all the excitement of the crowds leave him? What is he feeling?

We are not told. All we know is that he comes, walks around and then leaves the city for the night.

The next day Jesus comes back into the city. I wonder what their night in Bethany was like. Did the disciples stay up late, telling stories around the campfire of the people throwing their cloaks down in front of Jesus’ ride? Did they laugh, thinking of the ways that people shouted “Hosanna in the highest?” Did any of them notice Jesus- silent off to the side? Perhaps things didn’t feel quite the same in their little group since Jesus left the temple.

And how was Jesus feeling? Did he feel happy about the people shouting for him? Is he glad the disciples are laughing with one another? I imagine that Jesus feels like his time to die is coming soon. That his time to be able to teach them is running out. “They HAVE to get it soon. They HAVE to.”  Is he feeling pressure? Is he sad to leave these people that he has spent so much time mentoring and loving? Perhaps he knows his death will hurt them.

We are not told. All we know is that they left the city and then came back the next day.

Temple Tantrum

Verse 12 tells us the first emotion of Jesus in this story: he is hungry. The last day has consisted of crowds glorifying Jesus, a silent visit to the temple, a night outside of the city with his closest friends and now a journey back into the city. There have been a lot of emotions. This is the first one we hear about.

Because when Jesus saw that fig tree, he was thinking about his visit to the temple the previous day. The temple that was “all leaves and no fruit.” The temple where he saw people cheating widows out of their last pennies. He saw the sign for the price of doves, the animal provided to the poor for sacrifices, and noted that it was five times the price of a regular dove in the market. He saw a pilgrim bring in their own perfectly fine sheep for a sacrifice only to be turned away because the temple leaders said that their sheep wasn’t “clean.” They had to buy one from the temple- again, at an exorbitant price. He saw people running in and out, trying to sell their wares to each other.

And, for some reason, when Jesus looked at the fig tree the emotions came out, he finds out a way to perform a living parable and the poor fig tree gets cursed. (Even though Mark tells us, in defense of the tree, it wasn’t even the season for figs). The disciples heard Jesus curse the fig tree. Perhaps they were talking amongst themselves and when Jesus has a bit of an outburst they stop, looking at one another- “Did he just… curse that fig tree?” The disciples know it’s not fig season- what’s going on?

Jesus, now full of emotion, turns from the tree and heads to the temple.

He enters the temple and begins to chase people out. I wonder what it sounded like. Coins scatter on the ground. A cage breaks open and some doves begin to fly around. Sheep begin bleating in the chaos. The disciples stand off to the side pretty stunned wondering, “is this because we missed lunch?” Jesus flips over a table and those sitting behind it leap away. Some scribes try to stop Jesus but he just pushes past them and keeps chasing the sheep out of the temple.

Authentic Worship & Justice

For Jesus, the temple had become a place of injustice. Oh, it was a place where things were running well- people had the ability to make sacrifices. They could come, make their sacrifice, “worship,” and feel good about themselves. But the people running the temple had got caught up in the running of the place. They just wanted to find ways to keep money moving, to keep their machinery running. They went through the motions day after day. They got caught up in the injustices of running a business- rather than a house of prayer.

The temple activities were full of injustices. It was not the building, it wasn’t the temple that Jesus had a problem with- it was the people inside. The people who used the temple for a place of refuge as they continued to add to the injustices that were occurring within the temple. A place where they thought that what they were doing was protected, legitimized by the House of God. The prophet Amos (chapter 5, verse 21) tells us that God does not want our worship if justice is not there.

Often, the church is on the wrong side of justice issues. Lately, churches have learned to not be on the wrong side but choose to approach issues not by picking sides but by staying silent, or staying out of things altogether. What is the point of gathering together on a Sunday morning if we aren’t adding justice to our worship? Why come to church at all if it doesn’t affect the way that you are living your life, responding to the injustices in the world?

Jesus didn’t have anything against figs- although maybe he was a little hungry. He cursed the fig tree as a living parable. A lesson to what was going on with the activities in the temple. While he was in the temple, he saw all leaves- it looked from the outside that perhaps the temple was healthy. There were people inside, money was flowing in and out, people came to make their sacrifices. But there was no fruit- all that was in the temple was leaves, like the fig tree.

Do we come to church because it’s the way things have been running for years? Why do we tithe?  Do people on the outside look at our church and think of it as a house of prayer?

After the uproar in the temple, Jesus and his disciples leave the city for the night. I imagine things were different around their campfire that night. The disciples thought, the night before, that things were fine. They thought that their ministry with Jesus was running smoothly. They didn’t realize that there were so many injustices done in the temple courts. Instead of joking around the campfire, they are silent- thinking about the day’s events. Peter looks over at Jesus, wondering if he should go talk to him. They don’t quite understand what happened today. Sure, Jesus had berated them before. He had been frustrated at them for not understanding but today, today he was ANGRY.

The next day they quietly pack up their things and head back into the city. As they are walking along, Peter notices the fig tree.

Now, the disciples have been with Jesus for quite some time. They’ve seen him feed 5000 people with a couple fish and a few loaves of bread. They’ve seen people walk for the first time in their lives. They’ve seen a blind man gain his sight. They’ve even seen Jesus raise someone from the dead. But yet Peter can’t believe it that the fig tree that Jesus has cursed has died.

The other miracles that Jesus has performed, the parables that he has told have been parables of resurrection. Of joy. This is not. This is nearing the end of the road.

And, at the end of the road, Jesus is showing us where to be angry.

Conclusion:

We have a lot to be angry about. We have a lot to be frustrated about. Does it make you angry that COVID-19 doesn’t let us gather here, in our sanctuary. Do you get angry watching the riots at the White House on the news? Do you get angry when you hear that indigenous people can’t fish freely on their own land? Do you get angry when you hear stories of George Floyd? Of police brutality? Of racism? Do you get angry when you hear that many companies don’t pay their workers enough money to live on?

Does it make you angry when you hear that people have to ask if they are welcome in our House of God?

It’s easy to get so bogged down. To want to curl up in a little ball, in the safety of our own church community, with people we know that love us, in our comfort and lay low.

But when Jesus sees the injustices that are being done in his temple, he doesn’t leave with his disciples and stay outside of the city. Instead, he comes back and he makes a demonstration. He takes his anger and makes a stand. He flips over tables, he sends money flying, he chases away the injustices.

We have a lot to be angry about- what are we going to use those emotions to fuel?

Is it time to turn over tables?

Is it time to turn over the tables of racial injustice that permeate our society?

Is it time to turn over the tables of businesses that prey on the desperate, robbing them of their futures in exchange for the meager means of present survival?

Is it time to turn over the tables of the patriarchy that robs women and girls of confidence, hope, opportunity, and equality by insisting they are not as good, not as valued, and not as capable as men?

What is this place, where we are meeting?

It is a house, the earth its floor.

It has walls and a roof- is it sheltering people?

There are windows for light- is the door open to all?

This should be the place where we can receive what we need to increase our justice and God’s peace.

Amen.