Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 21:12-19

Jesus at the Temple

    12 Jesus entered the temple area 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 called forth your praise’?”

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

Jesus Curses a Fig Tree

     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.

Today’s reading describes two things that happened during the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry – after his entry into the city of Jerusalem in “the Triumphal Entry,” the event we remember on Palm Sunday.

During this week, Jesus was coming into increasingly bitter conflict with the Jewish religious leadership. As we know, this conflict would intensify until the religious leaders would arrest Jesus and demand his execution by the Romans.

It should probably be said that from their worldly perspective, the Jewish leadership had good reasons for wanting to get rid of Jesus. His teachings and actions had made the religious leadership look so bad that their credibility with the population and with the Romans was being threatened, so their power and privileges were being threatened as well. And the events reported in this passage were escalating the conflict to a crisis state – the religious leaders just couldn’t ignore what Jesus said and did here.

The reading begins with Jesus going to the temple. You might remember that we’ve said that Jesus’ Triumphal Entry had something in common with other triumphal entries by kings and generals in the ancient world. All the traditional elements were there, but the way Jesus entered the city could be understood as a parody of the typical triumphal entry. He rode in on a little donkey instead of a war horse, and there were peasants and fishermen singing psalms instead of soldiers playing trumpets and drums.

When a king or general made a triumphal entry, he would usually process through the city at the head of his troops. And then it was the custom to go to the city’s main temple to offer a sacrifice. In those days, the common belief was that every city had its own god, and making a sacrifice was a kind of ‘good will gesture’ to the leading god of that place.

But Jesus made that temple visit a kind of parody, too. When he went to the temple after his triumphal entry, he didn’t offer a sacrifice. Instead, he ‘cleansed’ the temple by driving out the money changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals.

It’s probably hard for us to understand how threatening this cleansing of the temple would have seemed to the Jewish religious authorities. The temple was the center of Jewish life – so it was the center of Jewish power and authority, too. And what’s more, the commissions they got from the sale of animals and from money-changing were an important source of revenue for the temple establishment. These practices had originally been a service to worshipers, but by Jesus’ time, they had become an abusive monopoly. The temple leadership allowed merchants to jack up the prices to abusive levels, and then skimmed off a healthy cut for themselves. And people know when they’re being ripped off.

So by driving out the corrupt merchants, Jesus was threatening the religiously, morally and theologically. And there’s a pretty good chance that he would have been regarded as something of a hero as far as lots of ordinary Jews were concerned. So Jesus would have been hated and resented by the leadership, just the way those in power hate and resent anyone who threatens their financing and makes them look bad in the eyes of the public.

Of course, Matthew also tells us that people were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The Hebrew word hosanna means “save us, please!” And by identifying Jesus as the Son of David, the crowds were saying that they believed he was the Messiah. So you might imagine how all that would go over with the religious authorities who thought of themselves as God’s appointed leadership for his chosen people. Matthew tells us they were “indignant,” and that was probably putting it mildly.

In the other part of today’s reading, Jesus does something that seems strange. He stops along the way at a fig tree, and discovering that it has no figs, he curses it and causes it to wither.

It seems to me this was intended as a symbolic act – or, as we sometimes say, an ‘enacted parable.’ The fig tree was a symbol of the Hebrew people, and especially of their religious establishment. So by cursing this tree for having no fruit, Jesus was symbolically condemning the religious leadership for their failures in leading God’s people.

It’s easy to read this passage, and others in which Jesus comes into conflict with the religious leadership of his people, and to tell ourselves how awful those Jewish leaders were. But it seems short-sighted not to stop and think about how easy it is to let our own personal interests get tangled up with our religious beliefs. For instance, any pastor of a well-to-do church knows that if you preach too much about greed, many of your “good givers” will leave the church and find one that makes them feel more welcome. Or at least, less guilty about their own giving. So most pastors don’t have much to say about greed.

But this passage also challenges us to ask ourselves – as individuals as well as congregations – whether we’re really ‘bearing fruit’ for the kingdom of God as Jesus might expect.

Do you think the Jewish leaders were any more sinful and corrupt than we are? Good question. Our faith tells us that we can’t claim to be less sinful than others – maybe just more aware of our own sinfulness and our reliance on God’s grace. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ confrontations with the religious leadership of his day are probably meant to confront us with questions about our own life of faith, too. About how our faith can be compromised by our own self-interest, and about whether or not we can claim to be bearing fruit for God.

Let’s pray. Lord, as we read these stories from the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, we invite you to use them to challenge us to live out our faith in ways that will place us firmly on his side, and not on the side of those driven by earthly concerns like money and power and the admiration of others. And by your Spirit, make us more and more fruitful in our lives of faith. Amen.

Every Blessing,