Monday, March 17, 2008

Tree, Temple, and Mountain

Monday, March 17, 2008 -- Monday in Holy Week

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, page 957)
Psalms 51:1-18 (19-20) (morning) 69:1-23 (evening)
Lamentations 1:1-2, 6-12
2 Corinthians 1:1-7
Mark 11:12-25

Many commentators interpret the fig tree that frames our gospel reading as a symbol of Jerusalem. As Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, he sees a fig tree without figs. "May no one ever eat fruit from you again," Jesus says. He goes into the Jerusalem Temple where he drives out those who were selling and buying and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. On the evening's return, they pass by the fig tree again, and it has withered.

Mark's gospel is being written in close proximity to the destruction of the Second Temple and much of Jerusalem in the war against Rome, 66-70 CE. Some Christian-Jews interpreted the destruction as a judgment from God against Jerusalem because, like the tree, it had failed to produce fruit, and had killed the Messiah.

Such an interpretation is consistent with the reading we have today from Lamentations, mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 BCE. "How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!" The poems of Lamentations repeatedly claim that God has made her suffer. "Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness... Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future..."

After the tragic destruction of September 11 in our country, some Christian commentators turned to these prophetic traditions to challenge America, charging our policies and greed with producing the alienation that led to our attack. Some even said that this was punishment from God, a wake-up call for a people in need of a return to justice. Speaking in such a way is very consistent with the Biblical tradition. It is also speech that can create conflict and resentment, as Jesus and Jeremiah learned so dramatically.

We read today that Jesus went into the Temple and drove out everyone doing business in providing certified, inspected, clean animals for sacrifice and those who offer their for-profit service of exchanging Roman coinage with its image of the Emperor for Jewish coinage which was suitable for religious purposes in the Temple. From the Temple perspective, they were simply servicing the religious needs of their people. It happened to be a very profitable multinational business.

From Jesus perspective there were several problems. First, Jesus claimed free access to God and to God's forgiveness for every person, challenging the Temple monopoly on forgiveness. Second, the coin exchange and animal inspection-certification process tended to prey on the poor. Like contemporary pay-day loans or sales taxes, the Temple policies squeezed the peasants. The wealthy had access to Jewish coinage, and their animals were likely to pass inspection as clean or unblemished. The Temple business practices favored the wealthy, as business practices often do.

Jesus closed their shops and tossed them out, opening the Temple to all who would come in empty handed. Reminding the people of their prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus spoke, saying, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, But you have made it a den of robbers." For this affront to their business, their pride and their piety, the powerful religious authorities sought from this point to do away with Jesus.

On the way back to Bethany, as they take note of the withered fig tree, Jesus says to the startled disciples, "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you." The mountain that dominates the road between Jerusalem and Bethany was not a natural mountain. It was the man-made fortress of Herod, a defensive castle that had been built on the top of a huge hill transported shovel-by-shovel into the middle of the plain. It might be seen as a symbol of perseverance and hard work. Jesus' words could also be interpreted as revolutionary political talk. If you truly believe, and persevere with hard work, you can take Herod's mountain and throw it, and him, into the sea.

These activities with tree and Temple and mountain are all prophetic challenges against the political and religious powers. These are the kinds of activities that led to Jesus' execution as an enemy of the established religion and an enemy of the state. The political waters begin to deepen on the Monday of Holy Week.

Lowell

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Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.


Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html


The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas

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