The National Catholic Review
Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem after a night in Bethany. Ascending a staircase about 3 stories high, Jesus stepped onto the Temple platform, the religious, political, economic, psychological center of Israel and of Judaism, a four-cornered area about the size of a soccer field, with the Temple proper in the center. In the northern portion of this large area were money-changers sellers of doves. In its own way, the commerce offered by these people was a service to Jews who had to offer sacrifice in the Temple area and use Jewish (considered now sacred) money to buy the necessities of sacrifice. No pagan money should be used to buy sacred offerings. It is often noted that at very busy times for Temple sacrifice, notably in Jesus’ time, larger animals, destined for sacrifice, were bought outside the limited area of the Temple platform. As can often happen, what was a service became a most unseemly distraction from the true purpose of the Temple. It is for this loss of sensibility about the spirituality of this House of God that moves Jesus to prophetic action. Indeed, he is not arrested because his action, only once in his life, was respected as prophetic (perhaps even Messianic, since the Messiah was to re-establish the Temple). Tradition taught Israel to handle prophets gingerly, respectfully. Putting together citations from Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus calls the Temple a House of prayer, and describes its present picture as a den of thieves. His words are powerful reminders of the venerable Hebrew Scriptures, shared by friend and enemy alike; what was read there is true here, and that is evil. (It is interesting to note that Jesus never condemns the Temple as such, but only the misuse of it. That his emphasis is on ’prayer’ rather than ’sacrifices’ prepares the Christian churches to abandon all but prayer in its gatherings and sacred buildings.) Mark is quick to note only one result of Jesus’ prophetic act: the Chief Priests (at most about 8 people) and the Scribes want him dead – this desire reminds us that long ago, in Chapter 3, Pharisees and Herodians wanted Jesus dead. The threat of violence is a thread woven throughout the story as told by Mark. Jesus’ group again passes the fig tree, now withered for Jesus’ curse. To avoid such a curse, one must have faith in God – such is the lesson Jesus draws from this withered tree. The old adage, drawn from this story, remains true and challenging: faith can move mountains. Will faith move mountains? The only answer is to have faith, strong faith, and trustingly wait for the mountain to move. Will it? He said so, and you know who he is. Faith so unites one with God that one can be confident that this loving God, to whom I have committed myself through faith, will hear every prayer. Can love do otherwise? And as so often, the teaching about trust in prayer includes the call: forgive, so you may be forgiven. There is a logic to this ’forgive/be forgiven’, even if it be also true that God may forgive me even if I am so hardhearted as not to forgive others. The fig tree has served a double purpose: to emphasize the unwillingness of Israel to produce fruit and the relationship with God which is established by faith. Again in the Temple area, Jesus is approached by some of the leaders of Israel, the Sanhedrin, which is composed of Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders (often those of ’old, established’ families). They represent worship of God, interpretation of the Law of God, and society’s financial interests and wellbeing. As is clear, they refused to say if John the Baptist was divinely sent or not. They certainly did not accept his call to repentance. Perhaps they wrongly rejected him, but if they say he was not from God, many people who believed the contrary would fault them very seriously. Jesus fends off another attempt to trip him up, to find fault with his life and actions, but they will find a way to catch him, indeed to kill him. John Kilgallen, S.J.