Monday: The Fig Tree & The Temple
We don’t know how Jesus spent the rest of his Sunday, but it seems that he may have made a quiet return to Bethany. The next day, Monday, he was walking along on the way back to Jerusalem when he saw a fig tree, from which he wanted to pick a fig to eat. Perhaps this was near Bethphage, which means “House of figs” and stands along the way from Bethany to Jerusalem, the place where the disciples found the donkey colt for the triumphal entry. As he reached the fig tree, he found that although it had leaves, it bore no fruit. He cursed it, causing it to wither right from its roots. The incident can look a little odd when recounted in the midst of this series of teachings and events, but many people see here a picture here of Israel, who had leaves to cover her nakedness, but no fruit, for she missed the day of her visitation.
In case we didn’t catch the fig-tree illustration, the gospel-writers also include the next event, the cleansing of the temple, where the external form conveys the intended purpose or raison d’Ãªtre but the inside or heart of the thing does not align. In John’s gospel, this event is recorded out of sequence, next to Jesus’ first sign at the wedding in Cana. The sybolism there is much the same as here, that of replacing the old with the new; new wine into old ceremonial vessels, cleansing or rededicating them for use. We have just seen how palm branches figured in the welcoming of the Maccabees to Jerusalem where they cleansed the temple, and it is quite likely that a connection exists between the temple cleansing of the Maccabees and the one recorded by the four Evangelists. Just as the Maccabees rode into town to the cheers of the people and cleansed the temple… Jesus does the same.
Jerusalem was beginning to bustle with the traffic of the Passover Feast later that week. Passover was a pilgrimage feast, when people would come from all over to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast at the temple. In fact, it was the greatest holiday of the year, like Christmas is for us, the event from which any other day of the year can be measured. As a result, there was a lot of activity in and around Jerusalem and in the markets. Those who came from afar would have to buy sacrificial animals in order to keep the festival, and impromptu markets were set up outside the temple in the court of the gentiles (the large area to the left in the illustration) so that travellers could purchase the necessaries in order to celebrate the feast.
Non-Jews were not allowed to approach the holy place beyond the court set aside for them, and it was this area for non-Jews that the money-changers and merchants had defiled with their (commercial) presence — rather ironic, indeed. When Jesus drove them out, he quoted from the Old Testament, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Behind his actions is the reality that Israel had refused him, and he was about to make access to God available to all people: gentiles included.
The Jewish authorities came to Jesus and demanded a sign to show by whose authority he had cleared out the temple. They refuse the sign he offers, that if they would destroy the temple, he would rebuild it again in three days’ time. They did not understand that Jesus was speaking of his body as the true temple, the sign and locality of God’s presence among them. Through his death and resurrection he was about to replace the temple entirely as a means for man to have access and relate to God.