This blog offers a meditation on one ofthe Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Jesus went into the Temple Courts, and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers, and the seats of the pigeon-dealers, 13 and said to them: “Scripture says ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” 14 While he was still in the Temple Courts, some blind and some lame people came up to him, and he cured them. 15 But, when the chief priests and the teachers of the Law saw the wonderful things that Jesus did, and the boys who were calling out in the Temple Courts “God save the Son of David!”, they were indignant, 16 and said to him: “Do you hear what these boys are saying?”
“Yes,” answered Jesus; “but did you never read the words — ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have called forth perfect praise’?”
17 Then he left them, and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
18 The next morning, in returning to the city, Jesus became hungry; 19 and, noticing a solitary fig tree by the roadside, he went up to it, but found nothing on it but leaves. So he said to it: “Never again will fruit be gathered off you.” And suddenly the fruit tree withered up. 20 When the disciples saw this, they exclaimed in astonishment: “How suddenly the fig tree withered up!”
21 “I tell you,” replied Jesus, “if you have faith, without ever a doubt, you will do what not only what has been done to the fig tree, but, even if you should say to this hill ‘Be lifted up and hurled into the sea!’ it would be done. 22 And whatever you ask for in your prayers will, if you have faith, be granted you.”
Matthew provides his readers with a clue to these events by the preceding verse in which Jesus is described as the “prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” In this passage he acts like a prophet of the Hebrew Bible by giving two prophetic signs, both of which concern the temple which is the holy centre of his people’s faith. A chorus of children remind the reader that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of David, arriving in his true place, the temple, only to describe it as a den of robbers while violently assaulting the commercial stalls. We should not imagine that this would be immediately understood, far less approved. Of course animals were needed for sacrifice, and temple coinage needed in place of pagan. To replace all of that ritual Jesus offers only prayer. He, the prophet Messiah is signalling an end to sacrifice and its trappings. The implication is that they are unnecessary now that God himself has drawn near in compassion for his people, in the ministry of Jesus. Only those without status, children and disabled people, show trust and are blessed by Jesus. In effect the prophet Jesus signals the end of the Temple and is replacement by God’s compassion available in his ministry and that of his followers.
Just in case his readers are so backward as not to tease out this meaning, Matthew gives them another hint. Jesus is hungry (as the poor are hungry for God’s justice) and curses the figtree which has no fruit (as fruitless as the Temple and its sacrifices) and even in its springtime strength it withers and dies (as the Temple cult will die). Jesus is announcing that God has moved on, he is doing the “new thing” that the prophet Isaiah had announced.(Isaiah 43:19). Jesus makes the application to the temple more obvious by saying that faithful prayer can remove the holy hill of Zion from its place. This would have special relevance for Matthew’s readers, who lived inthe aftermath of the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE and were facing a Judaism that was learning to live without temple sacrifices. Matthew is telling them that Jesus Messiah had prophesied this eventuality.
Behind these memories of Jesus is the faith of the author and that of the believing community to which he belonged- a faith which is barely a religion at all but rather a trust in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah through whom God’s compassionate justice is made available to all who pray for it. He and his community replace the temple on Zion hill which has been hurled into the sea. The passionate and modest faith which we can discern in Matthew’s Gospel might be a good maodel for today’s churches, who are living through the destruction of Christendom’s elaborate temples (which have either been removed from their places or recast as expensive residences or night clubs). They need to learn to praise God like children and to come to him for healing justice like the blind and the lame.