Mark 11:29

“I will put one question to you,” said Jesus. “Answer me that, and then I will tell you what authority I have to act as I do.

before authority
stand questions

before authority
powerfully judges

before authority
backs down

before authority
nothing weighs

before questions
authority shivers

Economic transactions in many cultures work on a personal bargaining process rather than turn that over to a system-wide process of wholesale and retail set prices. This carries over into styles of argumentation.

From a cycle of a price offered to a counter-offer to see if a sale can be achieved, we begin a cycle of questions offered to counter-questions to see if we can land on the same page or not.

Of course this could go on for some time:

“First respond to my question.”

“No, first respond to my question.”

“No, you answer first, then I will.”

“I asked first. You answer!”

And around it can go—any early example of a gunfight at an O.K. Corral. In these sorts of encounters there are always differing versions of the events and echoing encounters.

Since Mark is telling this tale, it is Jesus who gets to use a volitive “subjunctive … with the force of the imperative”—“You answer!” [Bratcher359]. Which is to say, the cycle is broken early with a run-on response that connects this verse with the next in one, unbroken stream that gives no opportunity to wriggle away because the question is included with the response. In essence, the formality of religious leaders—going step-by-step, tit-by-tat—was over-taken by a specific question not waiting its turn.

This presumption of being able to question first those who asked the first question is a second disruption, a second riding of a colt into the midst of a dressage performance of Lipizzaner stallions.

With the cycle broken, we will move on from a relatively simple request for a certificate duly signed and sealed indicating where one is placed on an approved list of rankings (external validations of I.Q., social status, prison record, bank account, experience base, and much more still used to automatically sort people) to a more complex demand for an example of critical thinking.

Mark 11:28

“What authority have you to do these things?” they said. “Who gave you the authority to do them?”

requiring authority
weakens arguments
mistaking power
for effect

it doesn’t matter
what the context
if you’re you
if you’re always wrong

not me
is all
it takes
bye bye

It would be easy to look at the examples of claimed authority to curse fig trees and disrupt temples as the source of these questions. Acts upon the world exterior to ourselves is often the source of what we think of as power. At such a point of temptation it is helpful to reflect upon the issue of prayer (a prayer beyond what is usually meant by the pious and distancing phrase of “thoughts and prayers”).

Upsetting the temple sacrificial system for a moment could pale in light of a revised vision of forgiveness which could be extended all the way to forgiveness of self and any distance from it that society would claim through illness or difference.

In typical fashion for a consummate parable-ist, the presenting issue is not the issue that needs dealing with. There is nothing within the framework of religious leaders that would allow for any other authority than that which they already have. In this way the questions are not real questions, but an opening shot across the bow that will reveal the irrelevancy of any economic challenge to their power.

The intervening teaching about prayer and forgiveness has been a hint as to how Jesus is going to shift from external actions such as disrupting temple procedures to internal acceptance of belovedness. This is a similar shift every movement of civil disobedience makes to finally address an unjust or unmerciful law.

Any particular direct action implemented is but a shadow of the underlying congruity and assurance of self and the worth of others.

The language of authority is familiar to parents whose expectation of their children is to reflect well on the parent and to care for them after whatever unintentional (or intentional) abuse came to the child through those illegitimate expectations. The scold in the questions comes through loud and clear and can only be dealt with through the depths of an internal integrity grounded in forgiveness and coming out of the closet of automatic guilt.

Mark 11:27

They came to Jerusalem again. While Jesus was walking about in the Temple Courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders came up to him.

again and yet again
Jesus enters a city of peace
in which there is no peace
a heart of forgiveness
in which there is no forgiveness

again and yet again
our first impression
lives far past its usefulness
our first nightmare
breaks its reality boundary

again and yet again
we walk through old patterns
noticing beauty and weakness
thoroughly mixed together
with suspicion quickly surfacing

Wherever and whenever direct action or guerilla theater occurs the first response by those in power is to ask what authority is claimed for these “illicit” acts. So it is here. The publicly authorized authorities come to re-exert their power.

This is an extension of Peter’s noticing the withered fig tree and, following James and John, is seeing a usable power. Think about the development and use of the first atomic weapons. What Peter may have seen as a wonderful extension of an appeal to power as the most efficient way to “fish for people”, other religious leaders see as a threat. And we are at the point of once again basing life on the power of death and destruction. The MAD doctrine (Mutual Assured Destruction, not “What me worry?”) of a zero-sum game surfaces again.

The Common English Bible chooses to translate “Jesus walked around the temple”. Most others say, “in the temple.” Whether “in” or “around”, this scene is not disconnected from the previous one

This entry to Jerusalem is not accompanied by signs of authority, withering and disruption. This is a softer symbol not unlike linking hands around the Pentagon. The scene might be seen through the eyes of a first entry into a “promised land” (a problematic image, as every example of exceptionalism is) and walking seven times around Jericho before its walls came tumbling down. What we don’t know is whether this encounter takes place in a first time around or if it took the current authorities until the sixth circling before they were able to come up with their puffed-up approach that is still the first line of response by religious leaders facing a larger change than they can manage to their benefit. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the setting is temple large or synagogue small. Authority is a perennial question.

Mark 11:26

But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your offenses.

conditional forgiveness
a circular firing squad
sees all the world
limited to its own image

underlying assumptions
subvert any good
inherent in a best intention

literal words
removed from view
hover in the background
exerting inappropriate blame

Even though we’ve just been through a series of witherings and disruptions, these are not direct and literal outgrowths of an awareness of belovedness.

Here we follow Sabin’s emphasis upon reading Mark as a midrash and a larger frame of good news for fig trees (either Israeli or Roman) and Temple is an eventual restoration. This expectation of intentional and universal renewal places any actions to cut off offending limbs, pluck out eyes, wither trees, and disrupt temples within Edwin Markham’s wonderful little mantra:

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

This larger setting doesn’t change a blocking wall through force. There is no compulsion here, even when a smaller circle goes awry in some way similar to what we know about cells that have gone off script and fall within our overly-large category of cancer.

This little verse, omitted in the best of the early documents, does connect with other stories being told about Jesus. It seems likely Matthew 6:15 was copied and pasted into Mark. In Matthew it is the first extension or interpretation of what we know as a tradition of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Because Mark does not have an equivalent prayer, it appears that a scribe or two inserted this reference into Mark. [See other insertions at 7:16, 9:44, 9:46, and 15.28.]

Still finding older texts to work from—the most recent versions of the Bible are based on the earliest documents—gives ever more opportunity to make more informed decisions about Mark’s writing. Since we are not likely to ever find a first edition of Mark, we can use the omitted verses to pause and reflect. Have we noticed any changed behavior since we slowed down to a verse at a time?

Mark 11:25

“And, whenever you stand up to pray, forgive any grievance that you have against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven also may forgive you your offenses.”

when asking for the world
the world asks for you

asks for you to not ask
ahead of time

disjunctured asking asks
far too little

small asks hurt someone
far too much

when that someone is you
pause your asking

pray like a generous mountain
asking big asks

big enough for a world
to rejoice you asked

Prayer is here described as a process of moving toward a new age, a new good news. It is a vehicle for everything withered to be whole again.

Sabin-184 remarks:

The emphasis on forgiveness forecloses the possibility that Mark meant us to conclude that Jesus desires or approves the withering of the tree; instead, he quotes Jesus saying words that urge forgiveness and imply restoration. And forgiveness and renewal, not judgment and damnation, seem to me to be the key motifs in Mark’s Gospel as a whole.

“Whenever” is a present indicative that represents repeated action. Every prayer is to have some aspect of forgiveness in it. This brings to mind a four-fold prayer form I have advocated in the past:

  1. Identify what one aspect of G*D you are calling upon for a need at hand;
  2. Say in one non-run-on sentence what the “ask” is. If it does not contain something about mercy or forgiveness, reshape it until it does or add a second sentence to so frame your ask.
  3. Express Thanks.
  4. Say “Amen” and claim the assurance found at the beginning of verse 23 which begins with the Greek ἀμήν (amēn, amen).

Once again, we are returning to Mark’s beginning with Baptizer John setting this Jesus story in motion with forgiveness and changed hearts. The mutuality between forgiveness and renewal is deep within Jesus’ tradition, as is the partnership between G*D and S*lf and Neighb*r that so relies upon continued support and correction.

Mark 11:24

And therefore I say to you ‘Have faith that whatever you ask for in prayer is already granted you, and you will find that it will be.’

it will be so
according to your vision
that sees tomorrow today
and past partials completed

it will be so
according to your vision
where all is joined at root
and released to soar

it will be so
according to your vision
so see your ophthalmologist
prophet on a regular basis

it will be so
according to your vision
if you don’t see outer shells
you’ll miss your inner pearl

it will be so
according to your vision
ask according to your vision
receive according to your vision

Prayer is too often like a talisman hung around your neck. Whatever you “pray and ask” for is already on the way. This continues the encouragement to keep on through thick and thin. In Mark’s time there was both thick and thin when there was too much wilderness and too little.

This construct has allowed too many, though, to blame the pray-er if the ask is not fulfilled in a New York minute. It also brings into play the false idea that one has to pray for approved items—another excuse when prayers appear to not come true.

The biggest difficulty is what is termed a Prayer Warrior. With enough intensity and numbers of prayers, we can get our way. There is no listening here, just demanding.

Of note is an assumption that we will attend to previous times prayer has occurred in Mark. Most often it is in the context of Jesus going apart to do some wilderness praying. After such came the expressions of power in stilling storms and bringing peace into their midst. A case can be made that every healing is a variation on a prayer form, an act of prayer.

One downside to this verse by verse approach comes when there are parallelisms in adjoining verses. For instance, it is very important to help us move away from seeing prayer as an oral exercise, an incantation, and move toward an intersectionality approach to life’s perplexities, that prayer be intimately connected with forgiveness, which is one of the modalities of healing.

Mark 11:23

“I tell you that if anyone should say to this hill ‘Be lifted up and hurled into the sea!’, without ever a doubt in his mind, but in the faith that what he says will be done, he would find that it would be.

mind matter
it matters

mountains and molehills
are scalable relatives

one adding to another
a single dust mote

collapsing upon itself
falling down or pulled under

it will happen
intended or not

it matters
matter minds

We have long been captivated by the notion that our ideas manifest and shape the world around us. There is a bit more humility in an alternative translation that would invite the Temple Mount to “take and throw yourself” into the sea.

In either case there is always the out that we use to excuse not having the faith of G*D. One way or another doubt creeps in below a confident voice to subvert such a demonstrative intention.

Continuing with alternative readings, we come to the conclusion that “what they say shall be granted” (it is not a direct command to a mountain but to a creator of mountains.

Both of these alternatives wear better in light of an expected renewal of the fig tree at the end of an age. They come with the same appreciation of something beyond our usual modes of changing the world and rely upon partnerships with G*D and Neighb*r.

We remember here the rich person seeking eternity and the dismay of the disciples that a rich (“blessed by G*D”) person would not have an automatic ticket to heaven. Who then can make it? Who then can have this kind of faith.

Mark’s writing takes place in a time of confusion and opportunity with the Temple having been destroyed, adjustments being made by the Jewish community to another round of defeat and destruction, and followers of Jesus having choices about following Peter or Paul or another (James and John?). In context, a word of encouragement is well in order and an assurance of making a dramatic difference would be very welcome as long as not too big a deal is made—for it also brings the risk of disillusionment when a mountain path is not made smooth.

Mark 11:22

“Have faith in God!” replied Jesus.

it is so true
living up to expectations
is a cause lost before begun

camels still balk
before haystacks
and their needles

as impossibilities pile up
the only way through is in
passion beyond probable

when all is lost
it is indeed lost
lost until again found

found as prelude
to a larger loss
worthy to engage

Before the disciples have opportunity to begin an explanation of their observation, Jesus steps in to begin interpreting this strange Incident of the Fig Tree.

As well as remembering Mark’s previous work with withered limbs, Jesus’ tradition would remember Isaiah’s first message. After saying to the people: Listen but don’t understand; look but don’t comprehend; the land will be abandoned; a mighty oak cut down—the word is, “Its stump is a holy seed”, (Isaiah 6:13).

Sabin-184 writes, “In these contexts, the Markan Jesus’ response, “Have faith,” implies that in spite of all appearances, one can trust that God will make the fig tree bloom again.”

That is a lovely thought but not any more comforting for those lost to Job after being destroyed as part of a test of his faith and then replaced by new children, land, and animals.

Faith, like prayer, is never easy or settled in what it means or how it is to be engaged in any given situation.

It is interesting to compare what this might mean if the fig tree is universalized to all of Creation being renewed, or if it is only about the Temple becoming a House of Prayer, or what a resurrected Rome might be like in a new age. What faith is expressed in each case?

Mark’s language here is problematic. A literal translation would be: “Have [the] faith of God.” This is different than having faith “in” G*D. Here we are talking about that strange confidence it takes to “say into being” both Light and Dark, to live as though a better future were already present. Partnership asks of all involved that they see a better faith of the others in themself and that their faith be extended to the others far beyond their present capacity to receive it. Around and around, back and forth, this is a faith that grows far beyond mere belief about provisional constructs.

Mark 11:21

Then Peter recalled what had occurred. “Look, Rabbi,” he exclaimed, “the fig-tree which you doomed is withered up!”

it is so much easier to remember
troubles than blessings
we are attuned to troubles
before we get to do no harm
we become proficient
in avoiding danger

sure enough we value predictions
of disaster far more highly
than a promise of fair sailing
our hearts need more training
than our so easily fooled head
courage more than paradigm

seeing how easily a curse
can spring forth
we fear in our heart
our next opportunity
to fail flat on our face
and hear never again

It could have been mentioned back at 11:14 that there is an additional way to translate the duration of the curse. Rather than set in eternal mode and in keeping with seasons, we might hear, “May no one ever eat fruit from you to the end of this age.” [Sabin2103]

This opens the possibility of a reversal as an introduction to a new age, a new good news. We will have to wait another two chapters to find if this is a better reading or not.

In the meantime, suffering and death has come to the fig tree and is still an expectation of Jesus about his own life’s arc.

See, the innocent get caught in non-justifiable actions. Just being at the wrong time and place where injustice comes so easily is all it takes. Followers of Black Lives Matter understand getting caught in the mechanics of an ever stricter legal system that sets all manner of profiling in motion. Then it was a fig tree and Jesus; now it is Black men in this season of The United States of America.

Worth worrying about here is the ever present specter of anti-Semitism. It is all to easy to jump from Jesus and a fig tree to Jesus condemning all Jews for all time. This really doesn’t comport with the healing Jesus does or the idea of good news for Israel and all. All too many have taken Peter’s words and twisted them into pogrom and genocide.

Though too short and gnarly, imagine that it is this fig tree that will eventually hold a suffering and dying Jesus. If this fig tree is a symbol of Rome, there is a certain irony that Jesus is withered on a withered tree—suffering and death for suffering and death.

Mark 11:20

As they passed by early in the morning, they noticed that the fig-tree was withered up from the roots.

look around
centers do not hold
withered from the center out
we’re half-way gone
only a vine is left

drink up me hearties
don’t look at past sustenance
or the future
of cows and bees
we have only today

I told you
and told you yet again
people fishing
is not a seasonal sport
be hospitable always

Mark has made it clear that there was no reason for Jesus, or anyone else, to “curse” a fig tree for not bearing figs in season. Swanson148 comes to the logical conclusion, “Apparently it IS the season for unreasonable actions by Jesus.”

The violence of the withering of the fig tree finds its counterpoint in the healing of a Geresene and the destruction of 2,000 pigs. There is the violence of language when Jesus calls a Syrophoenician woman a “dog”. Early on Jesus healed a leper and there was violence in sending him away with strict orders. When demons showed up they were dealt with as violently as they had violently taken residence in someone. We can also find violence in the way Jesus weakens Sabbath observance and refused to acknowledge his own mother.

Remembering that the fig tree is an ancient symbol of Rome as well as Israel—Jesus is not just doing in a tree, but the Roman occupiers as well as Israel and the Temple at its center. We might cast our own minds back through the renewal movements that have opened us to a next stage of life or that moves a whole culture along. These are not “natural” but “now—in season or out”.

Deborah Frieze has a TED-Talk, “How I Became a Localist”, in which she says our usual ways of trying to change the world not only don’t work, but will never work. Her analysis is “You can’t fundamentally change big systems. You can only abandon them and start over or offer hospice to what’s dying.” There is no way around a starting over being seen as a violent response by the current status quo.

We are not dealing with a meek and mild Jesus, but one present in Jerusalem to participate in a new start that follows after suffering and death. Abandon the false hope of incremental progress.