Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fig Tree and the Temple

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 -- Week of 6 Epiphany, Year One
Thomas Bray, Priest and Missionary, 1730
To read about our daily commemorations, go to our Holy Women, Holy Men blog:

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 948)
Psalms 97, 99, [100] (morning)       94, [95] (evening)
Isaiah 63:7-14
1 Timothy 1:18 - 2:8
Mark 11:12-26

Today's gospel opens and closes with the story of the fig tree.  Jesus looks at a fig tree that has nothing but leaves, "for it was not the season for figs."  If the tree was going to produce fruit in season, it would have had buds on it that are sometimes called "false figs."  But the tree has nothing but leaves.  It has no potential.  It will not produce fruit.  It will not do what it is created to do.  Jesus says, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again."

The story continues with Jesus' entry into the temple.  In the outer court the business people exchange the common currency with Roman or pagan images for coins approved for use to pay the temple tax or to buy animals for sacrifice.  In that trade area there were also inspectors who would examine the animals brought by the peasants for their temple prayers and sacrifices. 

From one perspective, these were legitimate services to insure the purity and holiness of temple worship.  But from another perspective, these services sometimes tended toward exploitation of the peasants.  Money changers charged a fee to convert the coinage.  That fee could be unjust.  Inspectors sometimes found flaws in perfectly good animals raised by peasants.  Those gifts would be rejected as imperfect so that the peasants would have to buy to animals sold by the temple authorities, already certified as unblemished and approved for sacrifice.  The prices for these animals could be unjustly expensive.  Many scholars believe that Jesus' actions overturning the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves was an act of civil disobedience and protest against the economic exploitation of the temple business which victimized the poor.

But there is a further, more profound attack upon the temple.  Jesus made forgiveness freely available to all.  He spoke of a loving Father who readily forgave sins of any who ask.  In the name of God he pronounced forgiveness of sins.  His words and actions challenged established religious authorities in two ways.  First, by making forgiveness freely available to all, Jesus challenged the temple monopoly on forgiveness, and the whole business enterprise that undergirded it.  Second, by pronouncing forgiveness, Jesus assumed a prerogative reserved for God alone.  Only God can forgive sins.  In many of his healings, Jesus declared that the restored one's sins were forgiven.  In one story, the people expressed amazement that such gifts were given to humanity.  Now humanity shared the God-given gift of declaring forgiveness. 

Jesus speaks two words from the Hebrew scriptures, interpreting his actions.  "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." (Isaiah 56:7)  "But you have made it a den of robbers." (Jeremiah 7:11)  Jesus opens access to God in prayer and access to God's forgiveness to all people.  Jesus names the economic exploitation of the temple authorities as robbery. 

Jesus' acts provoked response.  Those who administered the temple's work and profited from its business saw him threatening their foundations, their power and their income.  The religious authorities declared his actions blasphemy.  "When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city."

The story closes with the fig tree.  The fig tree is also a symbol for Israel.  On the next morning as Jesus and his disciples return on the road to Jerusalem, they see the fig tree from the day before, the tree with no potential to produce figs.  It had withered to its roots.

"Have faith in God," Jesus tells them.  Then he says, "Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' and ...believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you." 

There is a unique mountain that dominates the road between Bethany and Jerusalem.  It is the Herodium, a fortress built by Herod the Great.  Herod built that mountain by removing the top of an adjacent taller mountain and piling it shovel by shovel on the shorter, more strategically located mountain.  It was a mountain built by hands, with work and perseverance.  That is a certain kind of faith.  To keep working, shovel by shovel, until a mountain is moved.  In the context that Jesus speaks it, his words have a revolutionary edge.  To throw that particular mountain into the sea would be to topple the government of Herod.  It makes one think of the faith of the people of Egypt who have this season stood down a similar ruler and his power and fortress.

I can't leave without a note about today's commemoration for Thomas Bray, one of my favorites.  Bray was given oversight for the colony of Maryland.  He only visited once for a couple of months, but he promoted high expectations for the faithfulness and education of clergy.  He also promoted education for lay people and children.  He founded thirty-nine lending libraries and numerous schools.  He expressed progressive concern for Native Americans and Blacks.  He raised money for the American church and recruited priests for its work.  Bray founded two important organizations that are still functioning -- the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). 

In England he urged compassion toward slaves and he tried unsuccessfully to have a bishop appointed for the colonies.  He also responded to the deplorable conditions of English prisons by advocating for their improvement and raising funds for inmates.  He organized Sunday "Beef and Beer" dinners in prison.  It was Thomas Bray who gave General Oglethorpe the idea of founding a humanitarian colony for the relief of honest debtors, but he died before Georgia became a colony.  Thomas Bray.  Great guy.



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 missionstclare.com -- Click for online Daily Office
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 --  Click for Divine Hours

Discussion Blog:  To comment on today's reflection or readings, go to http://lowellsblog.blogspot.com, or click here for Lowell's blog find today's reading, click "comment" at the bottom of the reading, and post your thoughts.

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

See 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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