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Matthew 21:12-21

Jesus at the Temple

     12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

     14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

     16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

     “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,

        “‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have ordained praise’?”

     17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

The Fig Tree Withers

     18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

     20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

     21 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”

Whenever you’re reading from the Gospel According to Matthew, it’s helpful to remind yourself that the scholars say it was compiled specifically to make the story of Jesus known to Jewish readers. The history and traditions of the Hebrew people – and the prophesies in their scriptures – are in the background of many of the stories in Matthew.

This reading, for instance, might seem at first blush like it’s made up of two stories that don’t have much of a connection. But when you read the two stories through the lens of Matthew’s intended Jewish audience, a connection begins to come into focus – and an important connection, at that. It’s a connection that might have been more obvious to its original readers than it is to modern followers of Jesus.

The first story is Matthew’s account of Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple in Jerusalem – chasing out the moneychangers and those who were selling sacrificial animals. As he was doing that, Jesus spoke a famous sentence that’s actually made up of lines from two of the major Hebrew prophets. He quoted Isaiah about the temple being a “house of prayer” for all people, and he quoted Jeremiah in saying that the merchants had turned the temple into “a den of robbers.”

As you might remember from past Reflections, the New Testament scholars say what upset Jesus was that the merchants selling sacrificial animals and those changing money into the special coins for paying the “temple tax” had become corrupt. These merchants had been granted monopolies, and they exploited those monopolies to enrich themselves and the temple leadership at the expense of ordinary worshipers.

It seems that these merchants were taking advantage of their monopolies to jack up the prices of sacrificial animals and the rates of exchange for temple coins. In some cases, the scholars say, animals were being sold for eighty times their value outside the temple walls. (That happens with monopolies – think about the prices at concession stands at ball games or concerts.) The Jewish readers of the Gospel of Matthew probably knew about the corrupt practices of these temple merchants, so they might well have been very sympathetic to Jesus’ anger.

Jewish readers would probably also understand why the religious leadership was threatened by people shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David” when Jesus was near. Calling him “the Son of David” meant they recognized him as the Messiah, and the word ‘Hosanna’ is Hebrew for “Save us, please!” It’s no surprise that the temple leaders would hate hearing someone they resented being hailed as the Messiah.

Matthew’s Jewish readers would also see the significance of a part of this reading that seems odd and irrational to us: the part where Jesus curses a fig tree for having no fruit. The fig tree was a common symbol of the Jewish nation, and especially of its religious establishment. Finding a fig tree fruitless and cursing it would have been pretty threatening to the Hebrew religious leaders.

So you can probably see why I say there’s an important connection between these two stories, and one that would be meaningful to Jewish readers. In both of them, Jesus condemns the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the Jewish religious leadership.

But what are these stories supposed to mean to us as readers twenty centuries later? The story of the cleansing of the temple reminds us to be on guard against allowing self-interest to creep into the things of the faith. The sale of sacrificial animals and the changing of money had both started out as a service to worshipers, but had eventually turned into a racket for the leadership.

And the story about the cursing of the fig tree reminds us that God expects us to be ‘fruitful,’ and that his patience is not unlimited. At some point, if we’re not bearing fruit for his kingdom, God may run out of patience with us and move on. That might be true of churches, of denominations, even of individual people who think of themselves as disciples but who bear no fruit.

The fruit God expects of his Son’s disciples, it seems to me, is lives that are being changed in his image, service to others in his name, and efforts to share his love with others so they become disciples, too. So the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree nudge us to ask ourselves whether or not God would consider us to be ‘fruitful people’ by that standard.

Let’s pray. Lord, help us to guard our hearts against seeing the things of the faith in terms of what they can do for us. And help us always to be committed to bearing fruit for you, and for your kingdom. Amen.

Blessings,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 33 and 94; Amos 3:1-11; and II Peter 1:12-21.)