At this point in the story, readers tend to get distracted by Jesus’ apparently supernatural foreknowledge. That is not Mark’s point, however. His emphasis falls where it should, given the story’s trajectory to this point: on Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem as king. He commandeers the colt as would any sovereign, stating directly, “Its Lord has need.” Thus, Jesus enters Jerusalem mounted, as a king should, amid the acclamation of those “going before and following” and the deference of the “many” spreading out cloaks and leafy branches in his path.
There is no indication of how many they were or what their expectations for Jesus were. They might have been his followers, or they might have been a crowd welcoming pilgrims coming to the Passover festival in a traditional manner (taken from Ps 118:25-26). Probably, there was a mixture of both, but as Mark tells the story, there is no doubt that Jesus is accorded very special status and, quite untraditionally, associated with the coming of David’s kingdom (an accolade inserted into the Psalm quotation). This is a statement of hope in his messiahship. Yet, we must not read this so-called “triumphal entry” apart from the predictions that precede it or the misunderstanding of messiahship that has characterized the entire story. There is no little irony tinging this scene. We are quite capable of beautiful acts of praise and reverence amidst ignorance and false expectations. Jesus enters Jerusalem to die, and they have not a clue.
The following section is another Markan sandwich, though this one is something like a double decker. It opens with a brief visit to the temple (11:11), moves to the first encounter with the fig tree (11:12-14), returns to the temple (11:15-19), continues with the fig tree (11:20-25), and ends back in the temple (11:27-33). Recognizing this structure helps clarify the meaning of some otherwise puzzling passages.
Having taken the measure of the temple situation on the evening of his arrival, Jesus decides to return the following day. On the way, he is hungry and looks to a fig tree for nourishment. Some readers will find Jesus to be unfair in this story, or at least subject to low blood sugar grumpiness like the rest of us. After all, Mark points out that it was not even fig season--what right to curse the poor tree for obeying nature’s imperatives? But this misses the point of the living parable that Jesus enacts. Apparently, every moment is a teachable moment; even hungry ones. The surrounding preoccupation with the temple clues us in to both Jesus’ meaning and his mood.
The fig tree is like the Jerusalem temple (the heart of Judaism). From a distance, it looks leafy and promising. One expects to find fruit. Upon close examination, however, it is a disappointment. After taking a good look around (v. 11), it is clear that there is no fruit here. It is all religiosity and pious form. No substance. No nourishment.
Thus, Jesus’ extreme behavior in the temple itself is about their fruitlessness. It is possible that the focus on the merchants and moneychangers has to do with economic corruption and misuse of the sacrificial system for selfish gain, but there is definitely much more at stake. The story about the inauguration of the messianic era is still unfolding. This is Jesus’ first order of business upon arriving as prophet-king: a symbolic act of judgement on the people of God, who have failed in their vocation. The temple, rather than being the focal point of blessing to the nations, had turned into the symbol of nationalistic exclusivism and the home of too-often empty religiosity. Notice the one line Jesus quotes from Isa 56:7: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” The indictment of Israel’s failure is inseparable from God’s intention to bless all nations through her. Instead, his house has become a “den of robbers,” which, according to Jer 7:11, means that those coming to worship at the temple are living immorally and unethically, making their acts of religious propriety a fraud. So, by kicking out the infrastructure necessary to make sacrifices, Jesus shuts the whole thing down. The message is clear: don’t even bother. Time is up, and there is no fruit to be found.
Returning to the fig tree, Peter is amazed that it withered completely. Jesus again takes advantage of a teachable moment. The lesson: have faith in God (11:22). The explanation that follows is certainly not intended to make God into the whipping boy of the “prayer of faith,” as though Jesus means “whatever you ask” in some abstracted sense with no regard for God’s will. The context simply will not allow it. The preceding episode of judgement on those with a deaf ear to God’s will should be caution enough. But to be even clearer, Jesus adds, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your trespasses.” This is a very important caveat, because the context of this teaching is curse--the curse upon the tree, the symbolized curse upon the fruitless people of God, and the hyperbolized curse upon the temple mount (the “mountain” Jesus mentions throwing into the sea). Yet, that is not license to curse on a whim, even if you believe in your heart it will come to pass. Rather, it is a particular kind of prayer that God will answer: the prayer of a forgiving heart.
Mark tells us that after the “cleansing” of the temple, the chief priests and scribes determined to kill Jesus, “for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18). Now, returning to the final temple scene in this sandwich, the religious leaders desire to challenge Jesus. Their question is, “By what authority are you doing these things?” The answer has already been given in the course of the story, where Jesus’ authority has been constantly at issue, and Jesus’ reply likewise suggests that they have already had the chance to determine an answer. They do not ask because they want to know; they ask in order to imply publicly as authorities that he is not one. Jesus displays his stunning savvy by posing the question about John’s baptism. He forces them between a rock and a hard place politically, for they continue to fear the crowd (11:32). They cannot pander without losing face, and they cannot answer honestly without losing favor. So, they reveal their true colors by opting for the neutral answer. They have no faith in God’s prophets, but they care more for the favor of the people than their own convictions. In this scenario, there is no point in Jesus defending his authority. It is a political game, not a search for answers. And if they will not accept John, they certainly will not accept Jesus.
The final episode of the section brings the fruitlessness theme full circle through a parable about Israel as tenant vineyard workers. The imaginative retelling of Israel’s history of rejecting the prophets and keeping the “fruit” for herself is powerfully condemning, but the conclusion is really most what comes out most offensive. The vineyard owner, God, will not only destroy the tenants but also give the vineyard to “others” (12:9). The religious leaders, realizing the parable was told “against them,” heard the implication. Jesus claimed that God would give their inheritance--their blessing--to the Gentiles. That was an unthinkable affront. But despite their deep desire to make short work of Jesus, his popularity and their continued fear of the crowd (12:12) means they must play the game a little longer. What is the good news in all this? The message is that God is now moving forward with his intentions, so the nations will be blessed. As already stated, Jesus will be the ransom for many, and those many will include the Gentiles. The presence of God--which is the primary significance of the temple--is about to be available in a whole new way (connected with John’s prophecy about immersion in the Spirit in 1:8). And secondarily, while judgement is not good news per se, it is once again a relief to the excluded and the victimized that the religious status quo is not what God is about. What Jesus judges needs to be judged, if the world is to be set right.