Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rejecting a Spirit of Religion

(Mask in a store, La Jolla, California)

In Mark 11 we see Jesus riding on a donkey down the Mount of Olives. Crowds of people are shouting “Hosanna to the king!” The word “Hosanna” means, literally, “Save us!” Today we think of this word as a word of praise and celebration. At the time of Jesus it was more a desperate pray-cry for help. These people were living under the oppressive occupation of Rome. Imagine today living in America but under another nation’s rule? The people are hoping for Jesus to be the king that frees them from all of this.

After the donkey-procession Jesus slips, alone, into Jerusalem and the outer temple courts. Mark 11:12 says: Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. What did Jesus see when he looked around at everything in the temple? The answer is: a lot of religious activity. He saw Jews wearing prayer shawls and phylacteries and robes with tassels and who were bobbing up and down and genuflecting and reciting Torah and doing a lot of other religious activities Jesus had been in the temple before, where he said things like “I am the light of the world” and “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” Here was the Son of God, the Messiah, in the temple as God had foretold, only to be ignored and rejected. In Mark 11:12 Jesus is there only to observe. What’s missing in the temple is the presence of God. It would never be there again. This background explains what happens next.

Jesus is on his way back to Jerusalem with his disciples. He’s walking from Bethany, up the Mount of Olives, then down the Mount of olives into the Kidron Valley, from where one gets an incredible view of Mount Zion and the temple. He sees a fig tree with leaves on it. This gives Jesus an expectation of fruit. Fig trees produce “pre-figs” that are edible. These pre-figs, which are really the “flowers” of the fig tree, come before leaves are formed. The sight of leaves on the tree announces that, at least, edible pre-figs are there. Jesus is hungry. As they near the tree they see there are no pre-figs. This means this particular fig-tree is sterile and, for all practical purposes, useless. It’s all leaves and no fruit. So Jesus says to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." (Mark 11:14)

Then Jesus goes and cleanses the temple, saying “My house shall be a house of prayer.” The temple is like a fig tree with all leaves and no fruit. It’s just a bunch of religious activity and religious rituals and gestures. Someone hungry for God’s presence would not find God there. Which is the point of the whole thing.

He and the disciples leave the temple, and walk past the sterile fig tree once again, noticing it now has withered from the roots. The disciples are amazed at the raw power of Jesus. Jesus then says, "Have faith in God. 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.” Note that Jesus does not say “If anyone says to “a” mountain.” This is about “this” mountain, which is Mount Zion. Upon which is the temple. Which has become a sterile, barren place. Therefore, it’s now worthless, because God’s not in the house. It might as well be cast into the sea. Jesus is telling his disciples that they can pray and cast out a spirit of religion. Ben Witherington writes, “One could not simply repudiate the temple without provoking the most fundamental crisis regarding God’s (Yahweh’s) presence in the world. Jesus directly challenges this identification, arguing that to abandon faith in the temple is not to abandon faith in God.”

To follow the Real Jesus is not about engaging in religious rituals and activity. It’s all about the presence of God. If you have been captivated by a spirit of religion, then you are like a fig tree that produces no figs. For Jesus, it’s all about the fruit and being fruit-bearing people. Put your faith in God, say to the spirit of religion “You are out of here,” and embrace Jesus and following after Him.