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.

Mark 11:19

As soon as evening fell, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

strategic retreats
are part of every
guerrilla action

a silence for reflection
can up the ante
for raised anxiety

when will they strike again
causes over-reaction
perpetual preparation

eventually systems wear out
from high alert
abused resources

not as regular
as a tide’s ebb and flow
but as sure

every action’s non-action
forwards a march
to fruitful crisis

There are some who translate the last phrase as, “whenever it was evening they used to leave” [Bratcher354]. This brings to mind the Weathermen in1968 who would enter Chicago for their disruptive action and return to Evanston every evening to evaluate the day and plan for the next.

Though this raises an intriguing argument that changes a one-time symbolic action to intentionally continual engagements such as suggested by Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, Mark’s style of “BANG” calls for a single, definitive action.

Evening means the first quarter of the night, after sundown (6-9 p.m.). This also connects with the report of the first days of creation that had a pattern of, “It was evening and morning, of day X”. Evening is the beginning of the action, rather than its conclusion.

It is in our leaving that we enter the “rest of our life”. [No, not “rest” as in sleep, but the next part of a larger arc.] There is a sense that we need to say goodbye to our protective attachments before we have an opening to say hello to moving beyond our fear of suffering. This is the destruction of Jerusalem before its physical destruction.

Early on Jesus walked into a wilderness. The witnesses there were beasts and angels, the creation and meta-creation. Here he has ridden into a temple. The witnesses were a domesticated animal and religious leaders.

In light of Mark’s tendency to give hints to the reader that they might remember prior events that have an overlapping connection—What internal destruction took place in the wilderness and what vision comes forth from the temple? What new day comes with the setting of this day?

Mark 11:18

Now the chief priests and the teachers of the Law heard this and began to look for some way of putting Jesus to death; for they were afraid of him, since all the people were greatly impressed by his teaching.

beyond uncertainty
lies entrenched response
when poked it swarms

roulette’s red and black
is much too iffy
for privilege’s comfort

here no odds are brokered
only sure things count
and death is surer than taxes

no balance of power here
if it is not for us
it sure as hell is not for you

this is no game
of mutual assured destruction
it is all for you

your pause for prayer
leaves plenty of room
for a legal lynching

The first line can be better understood with the translational addition of the small word, “of”—The chief priests and legal experts came to hear of this….”

It doesn’t take much for us to feel threatened and to respond in kind. Just a whisper, an overheard or misheard word, or a suspicious mind putting the worst possible interpretation on a phrase can set a preemptive strike in motion.

It is one thing to call for “thoughts and prayers” and another to identify the underlying problem that comes with establishing power and holding on to it—that the means of control require ever more violence. In identifying the priests and moneychangers in the Temple as having the same methodology as the bandits who lay in wait along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, the enthralled and amazed crowd could begin to see the shape of authority without its trappings. When the emperor’s clothes can no longer hide the mechanisms of control, a milling crowd can be organized. Their yearning to reset the current inequities might actually be possible to implement.

Even without the upset in the Temple, Jesus is from Galilee and the rising tension there set leaders who relied on violence on edge. Galilee, both away from the religious center of Jerusalem and controlled by Rome from cities within such as Sepphoris and Tiberias, had a revolutionary fervor regarding both the Herodian royal priesthood and the colonizing power of Rome. Now that Jesus is here in Jerusalem, the vague threat he posed when in the hinterland needs to be addressed more immediately.

Mark 11:17

Then he began to teach. “Does not scripture say,” he asked, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

prayer is no guarantor
of repentance

the lure of profit
taking advantage
of human foibles
is persistent
prayer is no guarantor
of repentance

models of meaning
live well beyond
every evidence
that it crashed
prayer is no guarantor
of repentance

its assumptions
rest on unverifiable hope
unsubstantiated trust
conditioned love
prayer is no guarantor
of repentance

soft power is still power
susceptible to trembling
all too quick to abandon
a fruitful wilderness
prayer is no guarantor
of repentance

The preceding actions of stopping and blocking commercial activity in the Temple sets the scene for a Teach-In.

Sabin2101 helps us distinguish between the two writings referenced.

In interweaving these two passages, Mark is juxtaposing two very different strands in biblical tradition. The passage from Jeremiah [about crooks] expresses a warning about being corrupted by foreigners…. The passage from Isaiah [house of prayer] expresses the vision of a time when foreigners will want to join Israel in worship….

Noting a “tension and complexity” of the joining of these two quotes into one sentence, Sabin2 continues:

On the one hand, the quotation from Jeremiah places [Jesus] in the tradition of the reforming prophets seeking to purify Temple worship of foreign influences. On the other hand, the quotation from Isaiah places him in the tradition of the visionary prophets seeking to bring all people together by welcoming foreigners into God’s house.

There are other comparisons to be made between court prophets and reforming prophets. Court prophets, or priests, are those who are morally injured by their self-imposed limit of protecting whatever religious leadership is currently in place. This brings a next news cycle about a religious leader who is caught with their hand in the till or the pants of another.

Whether suffering and death come from fear of foreigners or those who maintain injustice, universal partnership is a key antidote.

Mark 11:16

and would not allow anyone to carry anything across the Temple Courts.

tables in one direction
chairs in another

doves released
coins scattered

all in all
quite a mess

needing fallow time
not a quick fix

so don’t bring
a broom just yet

such a picture
needs living with

imprinted on souls
for constant reflection

every system
comes to this

its calculated good
still frail

Remember—no story takes place in a vacuum—there is a Judean security police and a Roman garrison close at hand. These bodies exert the control needed to see that commercial interests are cared for.

This is the case for both those directly involved in transactions within the Temple setting and for those who save steps by using the temple ground as a shortcut from one part of Jerusalem to another or the carrying of goods to and from one of the gates of the city.

If the upsetting of tables is a direct action against those controlling the temple economy and means to access the favor of G*D, then this action is equivalent to what we know as a boycott or blockade of the public to raise their awareness of a current difficulty.

In both cases, this moment of disruption is but a prelude to the eventual collapse of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE when it is destroyed by the Romans as its political and military inconvenience came to outweigh its commercial benefit to them.

It is one thing to interfere with the day-to-day business of a religion, it is quite another to interfere with the business of individual citizens who make up one crowd or another. Every boycott or blockade reveals both supporters and opponents. Awareness of the larger issue that would bring forth this act of resistance is raised and more supporters gained. Interference with or interruption of daily business turns passive followers into active adversaries.

Beyond the reactions of those directly affected, security forces have their own interest in keeping a tight control on disputes and will use any needed force to preempt any potential or active disruption.

The odds are this event was relatively short in duration.

Mark 11:15

They came to Jerusalem. Jesus went into the Temple Courts, and began to drive out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers, and the seats of the pigeon-dealers,

still a-hungering
an exorcism
is all that rises
to every occasion
in need of mercy

oh we say first
no harm
but seeking all the harm
already done and done again
options become limited
to never again

into which our best cure
sets a next stage
for harm’s never-ending variety
to adjust its baseline
and bloom with a vengeance

a push here
a shove there
an expletive undeleted
scatters doves
as well as coins
hunger happens

Still hungering, Jesus comes to the Temple looking for sustenance. While the fig tree bore no fruit to sustain, the Temple is bearing bad fruit. This is just as problematic, if not more so. Here one gets empty calories while believing that such nutrition will see them through. It doesn’t.

The verbal-curse at the fig tree is here turned into an action-curse. This is not just a rotational issue of seasons, which might be excused, but an intentional selling of a patent medicine based on the patter of the seller and need or gullibility of the buyer, not the worth of the potion itself.

Sabin-2101 is clear that, “these actions must be understood in the context of … prophetic traditions.”

The confrontation is in line with the prophetic intention to purify the Temple from commercialization that ultimately runs counter to a Jubilee reset of generations of economic inequity. Sacrifices with a financial component, such as the selling of indulgences or promises of prosperity, can be traced back to Samuel’s sons, Abraham gifts to Melchizedek and the offerings of Cain and Abel.

The particular of doves is about the “sacrifices” of the poor—the sacrifice needed for the “purification” of women and the certification of a leper’s cleanliness. Jesus overturns “the stations used to make a profit off those condemned to second-class citizenship.” [Myers147]

Mark 11:14

So, addressing the tree, he exclaimed, “May no one ever again eat of your fruit!” And his disciples heard what he said.

driving forces
destination bound
brook no detour

all options
devolve to
either or

no excuse
for being
out of season

even absent
strange fruit
hangs heavy

this now
is all
there is

until awaking
beyond season
in larger love

This is often seen as an unnecessary curse (why would one naturally expect the fruit of figs before their season); it is not much different than prior teachings about dismissing a “Holy Spirit”, refusing to sell possessions, hanging millstones around the necks of others, and self-amputations.

Mark’s readers have, by now, become accustomed to knowing Jesus actions are as parabolic as his stories. At question is whether this action is literal rather than metaphoric and what justification there is for treating it literally.

We know the disciples have heard other things by Jesus, even specific directions, and have often not gotten the point.

We might remember them coming to Jesus complaining about others who are encroaching upon their territory and healing in Jesus’ name.

In hearing this curse, the disciples are likely to hear that they have another key that they can leverage into power and control.

They heard this statement to be about the fig tree, not about their not being ready for a next season or about Jesus’ hunger for mutual hospitality.

Mann441 looks at “the tradition which nurtured Jesus” and notes that “the Messianic Age, the Age of Blessings, will cause the earth to produce abundantly and beyond human expectation”. There will be “natural wonders which will accompany the time of restoration [an un-cursing of the ground Adam was to till]” (see examples in Isaiah 40:4-5, 45:2, 49:11, 51:10; Psalm of Solomon 11:4; and 1 Baruch 5:7). “Fruit out of season may be looked for, or expected, only by one entering upon the New Age who is hungry and righteous.”

Sabin-183 uses a midrashic approach that connects with G*D’s curse of the ground in Genesis so this has a larger context than just Israel and is a set-up for a universal reversal of all curses, even Jesus’.