“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” (Mark 11:28)
Jesus has been quite plain to the disciples: The influence of the Jewish leadership over the kingdom of God is quickly drawing to a close, to be replaced by a servant people whose trust is supremely in God, evidenced by a life of prayer.
But he has also challenged the Jewish authorities directly with his cleansing of the temple, to which they have challenged “Who do you think you are?” That’s the question behind their questions.
Jesus answers with a question of his own, and in telling us the story, Mark introduces us to this very contentious section (11:27-12:44) in his gospel – perhaps the most contentious of all – and exposes us to the dishonesty of his opponents. The section is not about either the questions or the answers. It’s about attitude. Christ’s opponents are not concerned about answers, nor are they concerned with truth. They are concerned with burnishing their image and discrediting Jesus.
I find it helpful to note Jesus gave them no answer. Not every question deserves an answer, and not every challenge deserves a response. Sometimes, you just have to move on. There is wisdom in knowing when to do what.
“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).
I can just pray for whatever I want and it will happen?
No matter what? Like telling a mountain to be removed to the sea? Even that?
Yes . . . and no.
God is not a holy gumball machine into which we put a prayer and God responds with whatever we wish. If that were the case, prayer would make God our servant.
The limitations of prayer is actually the theme of a longer text beginning with the cursing of the fig tree and ending with our text verse. Spiritual fruitlessness is a hindrance to prayer. Worldliness is a hindrance to prayer (it certainly hindered prayer in the temple). Failure to forgive is a hindrance to prayer (see verses 25 and 26).
And here, faithlessness is a hindrance to prayer. Stated positively, faith makes everything and anything possible . . . subject, of course, to the will of God. The issue is always: are we willing to submit to the Lord’s will?
I’m not sure I’d want something that wasn’t the Lord’s will. I’m not sure I’d want to change God’s mind about a matter if that were possible. But it doesn’t mean that I should not make my requests known, for doing so demonstrates a reliance on God, and that, too, is what faith is all about.
And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17).
On Monday of Jesus’ final week, the Lord returned to Jerusalem only to discover (as Mark presents the story) another disappointment. Within the temple wall, the outermost court (court of the gentiles) was as close as a non-Jew could get to the temple. Any attempt to get closer than that would result in capital punishment for the offending gentile.
The temple was to be place where everyone (regardless of nationality) could come worship the God of Israel. What Jesus found however was not a place of worship, but a shopping mall where hawkers sold their wares at inflated prices. The only spot where everyone could worship was not a place conducive to worship for anyone!
In a story told by all the gospel writers, Jesus cleared the mall of its merchants – much to the disappointment of the religious leadership profiting from the transactions (who begin to lay plans in earnest to kill him).
The road to God is intended to be marked and lined with the people of God who encourage all to come to God. There is only one road. There is neither provision nor permission to pioneer alternate routes. God’s people have to be sure they are on that road, and living in such a way that will mark it brightly and invitingly for all who would seek God – a road more easily traveled with the help of every pilgrim along the way.
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. (Mark 11:13-14).
This story is found only in Matthew and Mark and its lessons would be rather straight forward except for Mark’s cryptic little comment: “It was not the season for figs.”
Why expect figs on the tree if it wasn’t the season for figs?
After the fall harvest, Palestinian fig trees lose their leaves and begin to bear small buds that remain undeveloped until spring. In the early spring, before leaves appear, these buds begin to develop into an immature fruit called “paggim.” By the time the leaves appear again, the “paggim” is quite edible, but not yet a mature fig (see a reference to this “early fruit” in Song of Solomon 2:13). Thus the appearance of leaves on the fig tree proclaims the existence of fruit (however undeveloped). If there is no “paggim,” there will be no figs on the tree that season.
Jesus has been acclaimed by joyous throngs all the way to Jerusalem, but once at the city, there is no reception at all. The story of the fig tree presents another disappointment. After all Jesus has done, there ought to be at least a fledgling momentum of excitement anticipating the Kingdom. There is not. Israel is fruitless and stands condemned. So will the Church if she is unfruitful. No matter how immature, the Church of Christ should always be producing the fruit of Christ.
Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve”(Mark 11:11).
The story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the week before Passover is told in all four gospel accounts, but Mark presents it differently. The other gospel writers have Jesus going to Jerusalem several times in his ministry and great things always happen. But if we only had Mark, we might think this was the Lord’s first visit. To the other gospel writers, this is a triumphal entry into Jerusalem with Jesus being proclaimed a king. But to Mark, the big parade seems over before they ever get to Jerusalem – and there is no mention of Jesus being proclaimed a “king.”
In Mark, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is an anti-climax – a real balloon popper. Professor James Edwards puts it like this: “The whole scene comes to nothing. Like the seed in the parable of the sower that receives the word with joy but has no root and lasts but a short time, the crowd disperses as mysteriously as it assembled.”
The disappointment in this story continues with the next, but there is an additional point here: Christianity is more than excitement, hype, and parade. It is fundamentally about discipleship. There’s nothing wrong with the new, innovative, and exciting – unless their presence and our thirst for them distracts us from very difficult business of following and being Jesus in the world.
That is our calling.