Mk 11,12-21 All leaves and no fruit
Jesus Clears the Temple
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany,
Jesus was hungry.
13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf,
he went to find out if it had any fruit.
When he reached it,
he found nothing but leaves,
because it was not the season for figs.
14 Then he said to the tree,
“May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
And his disciples heard him say it.
15 On reaching Jerusalem,
Jesus entered the temple area
and began driving out
those who were buying and selling there.
He overturned the tables of the money changers
and the benches of those selling doves,
16 and would not allow anyone
to carry merchandise through the temple courts.
17 And as he taught them, he said,
“Is it not written:
“ ‘My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations’a?
But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’b”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this
and began looking for a way to kill him,
for they feared him,
because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, theyc went out of the city.
The Withered Fig Tree
20 In the morning,
as they went along,
they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus,
“Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Havea faith in God,” Jesus answered.
23 “I tell you the truth,
if anyone says to this mountain,
‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’
and does not doubt in his heart
but believes that what he says will happen,
it will be done for him.
24 Therefore I tell you,
whatever you ask for in prayer,
believe that you have received it,
and it will be yours.
25 And when you stand praying,
if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him,
so that your Father in heaven
may forgive you your sins.b”
Jesus Curses an Unfruitful Tree 11:12–14
The next three short units (the material in 11:12–25) are structurally and thematically tied together and may well be given the title “Jesus and the Unfruitful Temple.” They will be discussed separately, but the connections between them will clearly emerge in the discussion.
After spending the night in Bethany, Jesus and the Twelve return to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus does something that must puzzle his disciples, as it has puzzled commentators ever since. He sees a fig tree with leaves but no visible fruit. Approaching the tree, he verifies that it has nothing but leaves (11:13). He promptly “curses” it (at least Peter interprets Jesus’ words as a curse; v. 21). Mark adds (in defense of the tree?), It was not the season for figs. It was two months too early to realistically expect ripe figs, though it would have been possible for early spring green fruit to be on the tree that early.
What are we to make of this? Is Jesus getting edgy? Is he nervous over what he is about to do in Jerusalem? Is he starting to use his powers to destroy rather than save life (cf. 3:4)? Many theories have been proposed, but the views worth serious consideration maintain that the tree stands as a symbol, and that Jesus performs an acted parable. Jesus has spoken and enacted many parables of salvation (4:11, notes). Now he enacts a parable of judgment.
Mark drops hints that this is a parabolic action. Parables call for “hearing ears” (cf. 4:9, 23). The last line of the present incident reads, And his disciples heard him say it (11:14b). We wonder, “Do they have hearing ears, ears that understand the meaning of this parable?” This last line says more than that the episode is “To Be Continued.” It suggests that here is a need for discernment and interpretation. When the story resumes the next morning (11:20), the first words are they saw (v. 20) and Peter remembered (v. 21). These three key words, “hear,” “see,” and “remember,” are used 8:14–21 to teach the disciples about discernment. They recur here in a text that calls on the disciples and the readers to discern what is really being said.
If the fig tree symbolizes the judgment of God, on whom does the judgment fall? Readers commonly suggest “Israel” or “the temple.” I propose that it is Israel’s unfaithful religious leaders who are being symbolized. They are the ones whom Mark pictures as all-leaves, no-fruit (11:17, 20–21, notes; TBC, below; T. Geddert, 1989:125–9, n. 39 on 289) [Israel and Israel’s Leaders].
Beyond a doubt, this incident is directly connected to what happens next in the temple. Mark has made another of his famous intercalations, framing one narrative with another [Chiasm and Intercalation], with a structure as diagrammed here:
A • Jesus Curses an Unfruitful Tree. (11:12–14)
B • Jesus “Cleanses the Temple.” (11:15–19)
A’ • The Cursed Tree Is Discovered Withered. (11:20–21)
Jesus is not punishing the tree itself; he is making it stand for something else. Similarly, Jesus does not punish the temple itself. The temple itself is doing nothing wrong, nor are the ordinary pilgrims. The temple authorities and other religious leaders are the wrongdoers. According to Mark, they are misusing the temple even when their wrongdoing is elsewhere (11:17, notes). Later Jesus predicts the physical destruction of the temple (13:2), and its doom is directly linked to the misdeeds of the religious leaders (12:40).
Interpreters have great difficulty coming to terms with the seemingly inconceivable and unjust act of Jesus depicted in the fig tree cursing. As a result, they have scoured the text for subtle clues that something is being overlooked. I pass on some of the suggestions that seem worth pondering”
1. W. Cotter (see Bibliography) suggests that the explanatory clause, for it was not the season for figs, is not intended to explain why there were no figs, but rather why Jesus did not expect to find any. It “explains” an aspect of the text, but not what immediately precedes it. This is common in Mark. An obvious example is 16:3–4, where the clause for it was very large appears to explain the comment immediately preceding it (in Greek): It was already rolled away. In fact, however, it explains an earlier comment, on why the women were concerned about the stone. In chapter 16, the NRSV recognizes the “misplaced explanatory clauses” and rewords and repositions them to clarify the meaning to English readers. Suppose we do likewise here:
Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if, contrary to all expectation (since it was not the season for figs), there would be any fruit on it. But sure enough, there were only leaves.
This may not alleviate our concern over the justice of Jesus’ action in relation to the tree. However, this way Jesus does not come off looking as though he had impossible expectations or did not know anything about the seasons. Thus his “curse” does not come off as a spontaneous outburst of unexpected disappointment but rather as a measured (and symbolic) act. Jesus approaches the tree, not to check out the anticipated fruit, but to confirm his suspicion that there is none. Sure enough, all-show, no-reality. It is a symbolic reenactment of his “temple inspection” the night before (11:11).
Jesus has also approached the temple to confirm his suspicions. He found lots of activity going on, lots of leaves, but no fruit. Jesus responds to the tree on his way into Jerusalem. He responds to the temple when he arrives. The ultimate meaning and outcome of his response to the temple is foreshadowed in his dealings with the tree.
2. On the question of justice, we might very well be troubled. What did the tree do wrong? Is it a crime to be in step with the seasons? R. Fowler suggests that Mark intended to provoke questions of justice and injustice in the reader. This text prepares the reader to keep on asking such questions as the narrative goes on. Where is justice in all this? Is it just or is it unjust—
• when Jesus drives the traders from the temple?
• when Jesus exposes and condemns the religious authorities?
• when Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple?
• when Jesus is brought to trial for all this?
• when the religious and political authorities seem to have their way with Jesus?
• when God abandons Jesus on the cross but not in the tomb?
Mark’s goal for his narrative is reached when readers ask and answer such questions for themselves (Fowler, 1991:96–7).
3. R. Culpepper suggests part of Mark’s meaning is linked to an innocent sounding phrase. Jesus sees the fig tree in the distance (lit., from afar, apo makrothen). This phrase has been used twice before by Mark (5:6; 8:3), both times (arguably) alluding to Gentiles. Is Jesus looking at the fig tree (temple) and seeing it from a Gentile perspective? That makes sense only at the symbolic level. At the temple Jesus clears out the court of the Gentiles and declares that the temple’s real purpose is to be a house of prayer for all the nations (11:17). Jesus critiques the religious establishment for exclusiveness, nationalism, and ethnic chauvinism. They have no concern for those still at a distance (Culpepper: 178–9).
Jesus Condemns the Unfaithful Temple Authorities 11:15–19
11:15–16 Jesus’ Action
Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus goes straight to the temple. There he finds nothing but leaves (11:13, notes). The outer court (the only part where Gentiles are allowed) is a hubbub of activity. People are exchanging coins so that pilgrims from other lands can pay the temple tax in acceptable currency. Dealers are supplying pilgrims with certified clean sacrificial animals. Specifically mentioned are those who sell doves, those who sell poor people less expensive alternatives to sacrificial lambs (v. 15). The temple court is even being used as a shortcut; the shortest route from the Kidron valley into Jerusalem is right through the temple court (v. 16).
Jesus sees all the activity as nothing but leaves. He observes much religious activity. But where is the fruit? Where is prayer? Where in all this commotion and noise is there room or atmosphere for true worship? In the outer court, where Gentiles are welcome to worship alongside Jews, there is no place for the nations (v. 17).
Moreover, as we know from other sources, there is also profit-taking. The religious establishment has to certify animals “clean.” Thus they can reject any animal that pilgrims present and sell their own to pilgrims at exorbitant prices. They can set the exchange rates on currency unfairly. They can even overcharge for the doves, specifically made available for the poor.
We cannot be sure what upsets Jesus most. Perhaps it is an exclusive Jewish nationalism that has no place for Gentile worship. Perhaps it is profiteering by the officials. Perhaps it is simply the commercialism of it all, crowding out worship. The transactions have deteriorated into money, animals, and techniques. The ceremonial system is running well, but where does he see anyone loving God and neighbor with heart, mind, soul, and strength (cf. 12:30–33)?
Jesus carries out a dramatic demonstration. He stops the trading, turns over tables and chairs, and blocks off the shortcuts and the merchandise traffic. We may imagine animals running free, birds flapping wildly to escape, coins rolling all over the pavement, and people running around or fleeing in astonishment and confusion.
It is a demonstration, not a large-scale renewal movement. It is not designed to put an end to the sacrificial system. It likely does not put an end to the temple trading, either. We imagine that everything is back to normal in a few hours. But Jesus has made his point, carrying out a dramatic prophetic action, threatening divine judgment on those with whom God is displeased.
11:17 Jesus’ Teaching
A House of Prayer for All Nations 11:17a
Jesus uses two OT texts to interpret his action. He quotes Isaiah: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations (Mark 11:17a; Isa. 56:7). Isaiah 56 looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s eschatological promises: the barriers to worship will be torn down, foreigners will come (56:3), a eunuch will no longer be viewed as a “dry tree” (note well! 56:3; cf. Mark 11:20–21). Those previously excluded are invited into the temple and will find there a place, a name, a spiritual family (Isa. 56:5). They will find joy, acceptance, a place for prayer (56:6–7).
Jesus knows that the temple he has just “cleansed” can never become that eschatological temple. The abuses that have led to Jesus’ demonstration will ultimately lead to God’s judgment (13:2). A new temple not made with hands (cf. 14:58) will become the true house of prayer for all nations (cf. 15:29, 38–39; TBC, below).
A Den of Robbers 11:17b
The temple has not become what it should be. What then has it become? Jesus now quotes another prophet. Jeremiah speaks of Israel’s sinful deeds and misguided trust in the inviolability of the temple. The Israelites think their security lies in the temple, but it is destined to be laid waste along with the city and all its unfaithful people (Jer. 7:1–34). In chapters 11–15 of Mark, alert readers detect an astonishing number of allusions to Jeremiah 7; the most important is this quotation: Jesus says that Israel’s religious establishment has turned the temple into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17b; Jer. 7:11). We know from Jeremiah 7 what this means.
The temple is a den of robbers not primarily because people are being robbed there (though that also happened; see notes), but because the temple authorities retreat to the temple for their security. A robbers’ den is the place where robbers retreat for safety. It typically is a cave in the mountains where robbers set up their stronghold, plot further crimes, and guard their loot. It is the place where they think they can escape justice.
Such a robbers’ cave is what the temple has become. “Do not trust these deceptive words, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD,’ ” said the prophet (Jer. 7:4). The people commit abominations, and sinners stand before God in the temple saying, “We are safe!” (Jer. 7:10). But they are not. The temple is the place where sins are to be dealt with, not covered over. They have perverted the temple. For this, they will be judged and the temple destroyed (cf. Jer. 7:12–15).
According to Mark, Jesus considers the religious leaders a bunch of robbers. By filling the outer court with merchandising, they rob Gentiles of their place of prayer (11:17b). Through excessive profit-taking (in an enforced monopoly), they rob pilgrims, and especially the poor (11:15–17). They rob widows of their houses (12:40). Ultimately, they are robbing God. They steal the honor that belongs to God (12:38–40), and they withhold their love (12:28–34; cf. Jer. 7:30). They are not giving God what belongs to God: themselves (12:17). They themselves produce no fruit for their Lord (11:13), and they steal the produce of the vineyard that has been entrusted to them (12:1–8; cf. T. Geddert, 1989:122).
The unfaithful leaders believe that they are immune from punishment. After all, they have their temple, their ceremonies, their positions of authority. Jesus will call down God’s judgment on them (12:40; 13:2). His demonstration in the temple can be called a temple “cleansing.” The larger context, however, reveals that the whole temple system is being “disqualified.” Jesus’ action in the temple prefigures the judgment that will fall on the religious establishment controlling the temple and the religious system it represents (cf. 11:20–21, notes; TBC, below).
11:18–19 Various Reactions
It is amazing how many interpreters read the previous verses as though Jesus were speaking a word of judgment on either the nation or the temple itself. The religious leaders have no such illusions. They know that it is about themselves (11:18). Exactly the same thing happens in 12:12; commentators regularly assume the parable Jesus has just spoken (12:1–9) is about a transfer from Israel to Gentiles. The religious leaders of Israel, and more importantly Mark, know that it is nothing of the sort!
Jesus has been claiming prerogatives tightly held by the priests and the scribes (forgiveness of sin, 2:5; Sabbath regulations, 3:27–28). The religious establishment has been opposing him (3:6, 22; 7:1, 5; and so on). They clearly view him and his claims to authority as a threat to them and theirs. In 11:18 their fear of Jesus is reported and directly linked to Jesus’ popularity with the crowds. Mark describes the crowd as spellbound, using the same Greek word translated in 1:22 as astounded. There the astonished reaction concerned the amazing authority with which Jesus taught. No doubt it is also Jesus’ authority that holds the crowd spellbound now; that is precisely the issue the religious leaders address at their earliest opportunity (11:28).
The more allegiance the crowds give to Jesus, the less they give to the religious leaders. All influence, especially religious influence, depends ultimately on the willingness of the people to grant it.
Jesus’ action in relation to the temple is directly related to the plot to kill Jesus (11:18). It is a link that will be strong in the coming chapters. As the religious establishment tries to work out a death plan, Jesus and his disciples retire to Bethany for the night (v. 19). The day of dramatic action has ended. But the story of the fig tree is only half told. Its sequel must be linked to the material discussed above.
A Dead Tree and Living Faith 11:20–25
11:20–21 A Dead Tree
The next morning, Jesus and his disciples are returning to Jerusalem and the temple (cf. 11:27; 14:49). On the way they see the fig tree Jesus cursed the day before. He has said only that it will remain fruitless. Amazingly, it is already dried up from the roots. They all saw, and Peter remembered. Jesus challenges them to understand what it means (11:12–14, notes).
The judgment Jesus has been pronouncing on the religious establishment is symbolically taking effect. It will never bear fruit. In fact, it will not even retain its leaves and branches much longer.
A summary of 11:12–20 is in order:
Mark has deliberately used the fig tree cursing in order to present the reader with a graphic illustration of the “fruitlessness” of Israel’s leadership, the disappointment of Jesus in finding all their religiosity to be “nothing but leaves,” and the inevitability of their utter rejection and punishment in consequence of their failure to produce. The framework around the “cleansing” therefore slants the meaning of that event in the direction of disqualification, and that primarily of the religious leadership of Israel. (T. Geddert, 1989:128)
The next section of Mark focuses on what those leaders have been doing wrong and why God’s hand of judgment will fall on them and their temple.
11:22–25 Living Faith
The next five verses are loosely tied to what precedes. Verbal threads (faith, prayer, forgiveness) link them to each other. Each builds on the preceding one, and together they have a special relation to the material just covered.
Have Faith 11:22
Peter points out the astonishing effects of Jesus’ fig tree cursing. Jesus responds, Have faith in God. In context, what does he mean?
1. If you have enough faith, you too can curse trees and they will immediately wither.
2. If you have a genuine, fruit-bearing faith, you need not fear coming under such a curse.
3. When religious establishments are shaken and judged, keep trusting God; your faith is not tied to temples and ceremonies.
We hope the first one is not intended. Probably the second and third capture the correct connection. But there is still another possibility. The words translated Have faith in God might also be translated Hold onto the faithfulness of God (TJG). In that case it would still be a call for trust in God, but the focus would shift to the character of God, not the quality of human believing. This would impact the meaning of the following two verses.
Verse 22 does not mean, “Corporate worship is under condemnation, but private faith still pleases God.” Mark nowhere privatizes faith. Instead, he sees a spiritual family replacing an institutional system. In Greek, every occurrence of you in the sayings of verses 22, 24–25 is plural. Verse 23, perhaps a proverbial saying, uses the whoever … form (not retained by NRSV). Its form and meaning make it corporate, like the other statements. This section assumes that the faith expressed, the prayers uttered, and the forgiveness extended, are all communal acts.
Remove Mountains 11:23
In this saying, Jesus emphasizes the effectiveness of believing prayer: It can level mountains. This is hyperbole: otherwise, why has no prayer ever resulted in what this saying promises? That the mountain is directly addressed does not mean the power flows from the spoken word. Instead, human faith accesses God’s power. God is the one who acts, as implied by the passive verbs: be removed, be thrown. The implied condition here, as in all biblical references to effective prayer, is that God wills the results for which we ask.
We remember that Jesus is still walking from Bethany to Jerusalem. I wonder if he gestures up ahead when he refers to this mountain? Up ahead, the visual field is dominated by the temple on Mt. Zion. Is Jesus alluding to the coming judgment on the religious leaders and their temple? Many have thought so. Perhaps this nuance should not be excluded, but it would be a mistake to see in this a warrant for praying down judgment on others.
Effective Prayer 11:24
This verse generalizes and confirms the interpretation of verse 23 given above. These verses are not about “name it and claim it.” They are about trust in God, who has both the power to respond to our every need and the wisdom to know when our requests should be denied. If we think this verse promises that we can override God’s will, forcing God to act by the intensity of our faith, then we have not yet learned to distinguish between literal guarantees and dramatic hyperboles. This verse challenges disciples to make sure their prayers do not go unanswered because they were never uttered, or were uttered with doubting hearts. “The power to perform miracles belongs to God and can be prayed for but not presumed upon” (Dowd: 120).
Some strange interpretations have been proposed by reading too much into the past-tense verb: Believe that you have received it. I have heard suggestions like these: (1) Your prayer has already been answered, and you just need to notice it; you are already healed, so you just feel sick now. (2) What you have requested has already been declared yours in heaven; you just need the right kind of claiming to bring it into your experience.
In generalized statements such as this (v. 24), no great doctrines should be hung on the tense of a Greek verb. In Greek (especially when a Hebrew statement lies behind the text, as here) the tense of the verb often has little to do with the time during which the action takes place. It is unlikely that this promise would mean anything different if the verb were in the future tense: Believe that you will receive it (a change some Christian scribes introduced into the text).
Forgiving Others 11:25
A doubting heart can make prayer ineffective; so also can an unforgiving heart. This verse suggests that times of prayer should not be filled only with requests. They should be times to examine our own hearts. Have we forgiven others? Have we recognized our own need for God’s forgiveness?
The four sayings in 11:22–25 fit well into the larger Markan context. Jesus has condemned a form of religion that focuses on correct coins, certified clean animals, and lots of religious activity, but with no real fruit. The spiritual family that Jesus brings together focuses on trusting and unobstructed relationships with God, and open and reconciled relationships among believers. The true community of Jesus may not decorate itself with a great show of leaves, but on its branches hangs the genuine fruit that Jesus seeks. It may not create impressive ceremonies and rituals in a magnificent temple, but it will be a spiritual family, each brother and sister bound to the other through a common relationship to the one God.
Only here does Mark refer to God as the believers’ (plural) Father (cf. Matt. 6:9, 14). This text is not about private faith and private prayer; it is about a spiritual family that trusts together, prays together, forgives each other, and celebrates God’s forgiveness together.
Verse 26 is not in the best manuscripts [Textual Criticism of Mark].
THE TEXT IN BIBLICAL CONTEXT
Judgment on Institutionalized Religion
I have emphasized that the material above is not ultimately about figs, nor Israel itself, nor even the temple itself. It is about the religious establishment. The point is extremely important, for all that follows in Mark will be affected by this. Indeed, attitudes between Christians and Jews even today depend on seeing this clearly. Christians often assume that “the Jews” killed Jesus and that a Gentile church replaces Israel in the plan of God. Mark does not contribute anything to this misunderstanding. Yet commentators keep reading it into Mark’s text.
Israel does not condemn and kill Jesus. Israel is divided in its response to Jesus. Some of those who reject Jesus collaborate with Gentiles to kill him. Those who accept Jesus become the nucleus of renewed Israel. Israel is not replaced by Gentiles; faithful Israel is joined by believing Gentiles [Israel and Israel’s Leaders]. There is no Gentile church in the NT, only an original Jewish church, and then an integrated church.
The fig tree that is cursed is not Israel itself; it is Israel’s unfaithful religious establishment, maintained and controlled by religious leaders who have wrong attitudes about their role, their authority, their temple, and their religious ceremonies. The focus on the religious establishment becomes clear when we note the OT allusions contained in the report that the fig tree is found withered. OT prophets often lamented the growing unfaithfulness of Israel, usually locating the problem squarely on the shoulders of the religious leaders.
Consider this example from Hosea 9. I have highlighted words and phrases that are clearly reflected in the present Markan context. The text begins with God reminiscing about and delighting in Israel’s faithful past:
Like the first fruit on the fig tree,
in its first season, I saw your ancestors. (Hos. 9:10)
It shifts to God’s words of judgment on Israel, which has become unfaithful:
I will drive them out of my house
I will love them no more;
All their officials are rebels.
Ephraim is stricken,
Their root is dried up,
They shall bear no fruit. (Hos. 9:15–16)
The expulsion from the temple in Hosea 9 is linked symbolically to the dried-up fig tree, just as in Mark 11. Just as clearly, the rebellion of the officials is highlighted. It may seem unjust that a tree, a temple, and ordinary pilgrims suffer because of the unfaithfulness of religious leaders. But that only serves to emphasize the greatness of the responsibility laid on their shoulders and the seriousness of their unfaithful performance.
A House of Prayer for All Nations
The quotation of Isaiah 56:7 (Mark 11:17, notes) highlights one of the main abuses perpetrated by the religious leaders, as portrayed in Mark; they have lost sight of God’s eschatological ideal (Lohfink, 1998:235). They are content to keep the ceremonial system running. They are concerned to protect the boundaries, not to attract others to the God of Israel.
All three Synoptic writers quote Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be [called] a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13; Luke 19:46). Only Mark completes the quotation: “for all nations” (11:17). This does not mean that Mark has a stronger focus on Gentile inclusion than Matthew or Luke. It means Matthew and Luke have registered their focus on “all the nations” in other ways. Matthew includes a great commission (28:18–20), which sends the disciples out to “all nations,” and Luke writes an entire volume (Acts) recounting the spread of the gospel to “all the world” (Acts 22:15).
More than once Mark alludes to a temple not made with hands that will replace the Jerusalem temple (14:58; 15:29). The physical building should have been a place that attracted all the nations. The spiritual temple that will emerge out of Jesus’ resurrection will be founded on Jesus and on his apostles and prophets; it will be filled with God’s Spirit; it will be holy; it will be home to Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:20–22)—everything the Jewish temple has failed to become.
Mark teaches that the community of Jesus will become home to all who are gathered and regathered by the resurrected Jesus (3:33–35; 10:28–30; 16:7–08). Jesus has welcomed those who are excluded by scrupulous religious authorities (“Preview,” above). He has foreshadowed the day when God’s grace will flow freely to Gentiles (7:24–30; 8:1–10). The post-resurrection community must carry on that work as it proclaims Jesus’ gospel in all the world (13:10).
In Mark 11:15–17 Jesus brings condemnation on those who abuse the Jerusalem temple. Mark, in reporting Jesus’ actions and words, is challenging the Christian church to become the kind of temple Isaiah prophesied:
Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, …
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer, …
for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
THE TEXT IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH
When Religion Becomes Mere Ritual
The worship and fellowship experiences I appreciate most are those characterized by informality, spontaneity, variety, friendliness, and broad participation! I am quite the opposite of C. S. Lewis, who once wrote that he could worship with any kind of liturgy, as long as it was exactly the same every time; only then was it possible to get past the form and be drawn into the meaning (Lewis, 1964:4–5). The danger in spontaneous worship is that it often lacks artistic beauty and theological depth. The danger with more liturgical forms is that they can become mere ritual.
Many churches make fuller use of rituals and ceremonies than those where I have been most directly involved. At their best, such activities enhance worship; at their worst, they displace true worship. When religious ceremonies are repeated meaninglessly or even mindlessly (cf. Matt. 6:7), they cease to draw worshipers into God’s presence and to create the kind of community that practices justice and welcomes the stranger. The “all leaves—no fruit” ceremonial religion that Jesus attacked in Jerusalem had reached that point.
It is easy to get caught up in “religion”—keeping its machinery running and practicing its external forms—while at the same time losing the simplicity of faith, communion with God, and reconciled relationships. Let us not read Mark 11:12–21 as though it were only about them; it is about us.
C. E. B. Cranfield minces no words when he says:
If we imagine that every denominational tradition and every ecclesiastical vested interest and every bit of ecclesiastical pomp and circumstance are entitled to luxuriate behind the promise that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it,” we are like those who fondly repeated, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these.” (1953:193).
A major part of what Jesus objected to in the Jerusalem temple was that a place of prayer had been turned into a booming business! Coins were being exchanged, no doubt at significant profit to those who had the desired currency. Sacrificial animals were being sold, and the market advantage always went to those who needed to certify animals “without blemish” before they could be sacrificed. Possibly the people carrying things through the temple court (11:16) were farmers simply transporting goods from their gardens outside Jerusalem to the city market. They had no thoughts of worship; they were simply taking the shortest route, which just happened to cut through the temple court. Yes, the temple was big business, and at least some people were making a healthy profit from what was happening there (John 2:16; cf. Zech. 14:21).
How tragic when churches resemble big businesses more than places of prayer. It happens in a myriad ways:
• Famous speakers and writers charging exorbitant fees to be key attractions at large fund-raising events.
• Radio and television speakers pleading desperately for funds to keep their ministries going, but padding their pockets on the side.
• Special “yellow pages” promoting “Christian” businesses among church people: the business ethics of the owner are not checked, if only they sign a doctrinal statement and pay for the advertising.
• Building and maintaining great cathedrals and worship centers, thus absorbing ten times the funding for worldwide mission programs.
• Conference-goers staying in the best hotels; they would have been more frugal with their own money, but the church is paying.
• Targeting neighborhoods for evangelism, not because those people are needy, but because demographic research suggests that converts from that area will contribute more to the budget, more quickly resulting in self-supporting church plants.
• Failing to preach about economic justice and the sins of hoarding and self-indulgence, because it would offend the rich in the congregation.
If Jesus were to come and look around at everything (Mark 11:11) in each of our churches, would he see a house of prayer for all nations, nothing but leaves, or worst of all, a den of robbers?
Prayer and Guaranteed Responses
Jesus promised, Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mark 11:24). Few statements in Scripture have raised as many questions, provoked as much soul-searching (and finger-pointing), and left faithful prayer warriors as frustrated or disillusioned as this one. The promise that prayer will always result in what we ask for” was surely not meant as an ironclad guarantee that God will never say no. That would make it override the experience of most Christians and also many other scriptural texts.
Part of the problem is that our rational mind-set and our view of Scripture often lead us to extract from a text only its logical content, never suspecting that it is designed mainly for reflection and challenge. Jesus and/or Mark designed this promise as an encouragement to prayer, expectancy, and confidence in God’s unlimited power and loving care. We can hardly blame them for saying this if we then misuse this promise only as a statement to be harmonized with (or to override) many others, in constructing our “doctrine of prayer.”
Many believers have prayed with sincerity and commitment, over long periods of time, for special needs like the recovery of loved ones with terminal diseases. Some report great divine interventions; many have yet to experience any. When there are no great miracles, people often ask, “What went wrong? Were the prayers not uttered correctly? Was there sin in the life of one of the group members? Were we canceling our prayers by not canceling the medical treatments?” How desperately we try to find ways of explaining away the mystery that God does not always choose to intervene, no matter how we pray, despite verses like Mark 11:24.
One “Christian” teacher teaches that God always heals if only the prayers and the pray-ers are right before God, then (apparently) admits to friends, “I know it is not true, but more people are healed if I say that, than if I say it only sometimes works!” God cannot be honored by such deception.
There are no easy explanations why the Scriptures sometimes seem to promise so much, and why the experience of even the most faithful is often so different. But of one thing we can be confident: God is surely not the kind of God who sits back and thinks, “I really would like to do a miracle here, but they just did not use the oil in the right way. They did not claim the answer with the proper degree of confidence. They did not formulate their prayers correctly. There were not quite enough people at the prayer meeting. They stopped praying before the answer broke through. I really would have given them their request, but they just did not quite get their prayers right. Maybe next time!”
Sharyn Dowd’s provocative study of Mark 11:22–25 leads her to make the following summarizing statement:
Prayer is the context for the community’s experiences of power, and prayer is the context for the community’s experiences of suffering and martyrdom …. [Mark’s] approach serves the pastoral function of continually bringing the community back to the presence of God, who is the source of their power and the only value worth dying for. The “danger” of the Markan approach to prayer is not that it will be taken too seriously, but that the formative document of a community that experienced both divine power and devastating persecution will be trivialized by a church that experiences neither. (164–5)
a Isaiah 56:7
b Jer. 7:11
c Some early manuscripts he
a Some early manuscripts If you have
b Some manuscripts sins. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins.
The Holy Bible : New International Version, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Mk 11:12-25.
notes Explanatory Notes
NRSV New Revised Standard Version Bible
OT Old Testament
TJG by author.
NT New Testament
Timothy J. Geddert, Mark, Believers church Bible commentary (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 263.