Meditations on Aspects of Easter: 2. Anticlimax & Provocation
Mark 11:12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.
It is Monday morning. Across the city and, indeed, in the surrounding villages where Passover pilgrims might be staying, people are waking up and wondering. They wonder about what had happened yesterday. Yesterday the Messiah had come to the city, they thought, yesterday he was welcomed by the crowds. For the Roman commanders, no doubt they had held their breath for a moment as the potential for a riot, if not worse, appeared to be approaching the city. But then it had dissipated as, instead, the crowd had gone up to the Temple. No doubt they breathed a sign of relief.
But not so in the house of the Chief Priest or in the homes of the temple administrators. The agitator from the north had come and then, thankfully, gone. But at least he didn’t seem to upset the Romans! If he does that we’re really in trouble. It’s bad enough that we know we have these various rebels and troublemakers around who want to cause trouble and rise up against them. If they are allowed to cause upset – and just before this most important feast of the year – the Romans will bring such a crackdown it may even curb the entire festivities. We mustn’t let that happen! (We will follow what happened now in Mark’s account in chapter 11 – different from the others but we’ll comment on that in a later meditation))
And out at Bethany, just a few miles away where Jesus is staying with his disciples, the disciples wake and wonder. What will the master do today? Yesterday was pretty exciting but where did it go? As they go to leave Bethany early in the morning, Jesus pauses for a moment and then wanders over to a fig tree. (v.13,14) It’s the time of the year when fig-trees normally begin to get leaves but do not produce figs until their leaves are all out in June. This tree was an exception in that it was already, at Passover time, full of leaves. A tree that looked good but bore no fruit! And so he cursed it. His disciples looked on and wondered. It wasn’t until they passed it next day on the way into town and saw it shriveled that they wondered some more and Peter commented, but Jesus gave no answer that made sense, it seemed, but simply taught them about having faith (v.20-). It would only be with further reflection that we might see Jesus highlighting a failure of Judaism – looking good but not producing godly fruit, thus worthy of divine condemnation.
But now on this Monday, he makes his way back up into the city and up to the temple. (v.15-) He enters and in a loud voice starts denouncing their making the temple a market, and starts turning tables over. Total chaos. There is much shouting. What is going on? He’s turned on his own people, or at least he’s turned on the administration of Judaism. If this is the Messiah he seems to have got it wrong. We expected him to have sorted out the Romans but instead he’s turned on us? The temple officials come running but Jesus has left. They had been made to look fools as this agitator from the north had gate-crashed the crowds in the temple and caused havoc and denounced them.
It is Tuesday and the familiar walk into town from Bethany starts again. They see the withered fig tree but continue on into town and again aim for the temple. In the temple courts, before he has time to do anything else, a band of the religious leaders approach him (v.27) and expecting a repeat of yesterday, demand, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus floors them with a question of his own which they refuse to answer, but it leaves them disarmed. Jesus turns away and teaches the crowd and tells a parable (12:1-) that had distinctly Old Testament echoes about it, of a vineyard owner who lets out his vineyard but whose rent-collectors are rejected, eventually sending his son who they then kill. The authorities, standing there in the background listening, know he is talking about them. The vineyard story was a familiar one used by the prophets to denounce Israel. They are angry, and they turn away angrily talking in whispers about how they could arrest the provocateur. (v.12)
Jesus leaves but they aren’t done with him yet. They gather some Herodians (more politically motivated and friends of the Romans) and some Pharisees (from a very conservative religious grouping who thought themselves guardians of the Law), both groups with their own agendas, (v.13) but both of whom would be upset by any challenge from an outsider from the north, and they send them to challenge Jesus, but he confounds them. Then there came (v.18) a group of Sadducees, (another religious party of wealthy Jews who focused in Jerusalem on the temple) and challenged him, but again were confounded by Jesus.
It is a week of continual confrontation. By the way Jesus comes each day to teach in the vicinity of the temple, it is almost as if he is provoking the authorities, goading them into wrong action. He simply speaks the truth and his depth of teaching confounds all those who come to try to pull him down. The Chief Priest and the other priests are zealous to protect Judaism as they know it and they fear his presence might cause the Romans to react harshly against them. The Sadducees are jealous for their city and their temple and are angry that an interloper can barge in during the week running up to the great festival, causing upset. The Herodians fear political challenge and upset and see him as a real threat. The Pharisees can’t quite understand where he’s coming from, but it feels like he is challenging everything they believe in. He must go! The forces of opposition are mounting day by day. How will it end?
For those of us familiar with the story (possibly too familiar) we know the end, but what have we got here? We have the Son of God working out his Father’s strategy that will bring about his death on the Friday of this week. The apostle Peter, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, would summarise all this: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) Yes, it was God’s set or pre-ordained purpose for this to come about and His foreknowledge knew that if sinful men were provoked enough by goodness they would rise up and sacrifice the Lamb of God who had come from heaven for that very purpose.
That is what is happening here and with hindsight it is easy for us to take it in, but imagine you were a disciple in this week. I suggest you would be largely clueless as to what is going on. Yes, Jesus has spoken about what was to happen (as we’ll remind ourselves in a later meditation) but it all seemed so strange, as to be beyond believing and so you had pushed it to the back of your mind. What we don’t understand we ignore and, if we are honest, often circumstances are so strange, we just don’t understand them; that’s just how life is so often but just possibly, God is working out His plans around you, even though you may not yet understand them. Simply trust Him and be at peace.
In both this and the first meditation, I briefly noted that we were following Mark’s account of the things that occurred and because I am aware this differs in order from Matthew’s & Luke’s accounts, and question has been made about it, it seemed appropriate to add this further comment.
The Gospel writers, as they collate the reports and writings they have been collecting, aren’t always as clear as we today might wish report writing to be. For instance, in the first meditation I cited Mark’s account of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, going to the temple, leaving and returning next morning to overturn the tables (Mk 11:9-17). Bear in mind that it is thought that Mark is dictated by the apostle Peter for whom these events would have been graphically imprinted on his mind!
Now if you look in Luke he, at first sight, appears to show the overturning tables on the same day of arriving. See Lk 19:41-46 and also Matt 21:9-13. One reason, which is sometimes put forward, may be the total confusion that surrounded these events, which we’ll attempt to draw out as we proceed further through the week. Another reason, more likely, may be the simple fact that the Jewish writers approached their composition in a completely different way to the way we do today, often not bothering to include every detail (hence different accounts) and not showing the gaps in a series of (as they see them) individual actions. Thus in Matt 21, taking Mark into account, there is a twenty four hour gap between verses 11 and 12. Also Matthew being the ‘kingdom writer’ of the four, wants to emphasise Jesus’ ruling activities. Luke simply follows on. A different age, different styles and approaches to writing – but presenting the facts nevertheless.