The Fig Tree, the Temple, and the Jerusalem Leadership
|James Tissot, The Pharisees Question Jesus|
The Gospels agree that Jesus spent the first few days of Holy Week in the temple, where his actions and teachings continued to stoke opposition among the Jerusalem leadership (see Luke 19:47‒48). Nevertheless, while there is marked divergence on the sequence of events between Mark and the other Synoptics, the story of the cursing of the fig tree in Mark and Matthew provides a common theme for Monday, with the symbolism of this peculiar miracle helping to explain why Mark seems to have moved Jesus’s actions in the temple to the day after the triumphal entry and shifted some of his teachings to the next day. On one hand, by framing the temple incident with the tree’s cursing and its withering, Mark creates a tightly designed structure that emphasizes that because the Jerusalem leadership of Jesus’s day was fruitless—not practicing the justice, mercy, and holiness the Lord required—the temple would soon be destroyed. On the other hand, by placing Jesus’s condemnation of the chief priests and elders immediately after the cursing of the fig tree, Matthew, along with Luke, highlights the failure of Jerusalem’s leadership. John’s account differs substantially from the Synoptics, but it too places Jesus in the temple, where he prophesies of the coming hour that will see him accomplish his mission.
Historically Monday and Tuesday have been relatively empty days in terms of liturgical observance, with fewer formal traditions associated with the events of those days. Both, however, continue the kingly phase that began with the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, demonstrating Jesus’s acting with authority as the True King of Israel, yet allusions to earthly kingship are but a type for his victory over sin and death and his heavenly reign. As President Hinckley testified, “Whenever the cold hand of death strikes, there shines through the gloom and the darkness of that hour the triumphant figure of the Lord Jesus Christ, He, the Son of God, who by his matchless and eternal power overcame death. He is the Redeemer of the world. He gave His life for each of us. He took it up again and became the firstfruits of them that slept. He, as King of Kings, stands triumphant above all other kings.”
Using Monday to emphasize the importance of accepting and honoring Christ is the way that we can best bring forth proper fruit, thereby keeping ourselves, our families, our homes, and our temples holy as we prepare ourselves to receive his salvation.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “This Glorious Easter Morn,” Ensign, May 1996, 67.
Scriptural accounts for Monday: Mark 11:12–12:12; Matt 21:18–22:15; Luke 19:47–20:19; John 12:20–36
- Cursing of the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12–14; Matt 21:18–19a)
- The Cleansing of the Temple in Mark (Mark 11:15–19)
- Jesus’ Pattern of Teaching in the Temple (Luke 19:47–48)
- Teachings in the Temple: Rejection of Old Israel (Mark 11:27–12:12; Matt 21:23–22:15; Luke 20:1–19)
- Jesus and the Coming Hour (John 12:20–36)
- For my fresh translation of these passages, go to Readings for Monday
Ideas for Families
- If using an Easter Wreath, again light the purple candle
- Remembering Jesus as the rightful king from Palm Sunday, sing “Come, O Thou King of Kings” (hymn 59) or “Beautiful Savior” (Children’s Songbook, 62‒63).
- Read the story of the Fig Tree in Mark and discuss the importance of bearing good fruit in our lives by following Jesus and keeping his commandments
- If you did not discuss the cleansing of the temple on Palm Sunday, discuss its symbolism now and talk about the importance of the temple today
- Sing “We Love Thy House, O God (hymn no. 247) or “I Love to See the Temple” (Children’s Songbook, 95).
- Listen to Handel's “And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi” from Messiah
- Read the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33–46) and talk about how it foreshadowed what was going to happen to Jesus later that week
- Read the story of Jesus teaching about the Coming Hour in John 12:27–36.
- Use the image of Jesus being “lifted up” in the Johannine passion prediction to shift to what the Risen Lord said about holding him up as the light that we shine to the world by following him (3 Nephi 18:16‒24).
- Charles Colson et al., “Cleansing the Temple,” Christ in Easter, [17‒18].
- Janet and Joe Hales, A Christ Centered Easter, 7.
- Wendee Wilcox Rosborough, The Holy Week for Latter-day Saint Families, 9‒15.
Some Inspiring Art
- James Tissot, “The Accursed Fig Tree,” “The Merchants Chased from the Temple” (again), “The Pharisees Question Jesus,” “The Gentiles Ask to See Jesus,” “The Voice from on High,” “Jesus Goes in the Evening to Bethany"
Anglican collect of the day:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; though Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Brief Discussion of the Events of the Monday before Easter
|James Tissot, The Accursed Fig Tree|
CURSING OF THE FIG TREE AND THE MARCAN CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE
After the events of Palm Sunday, Jesus retired from the Jerusalem to spend the night in Bethany, a pattern he followed throughout much of the week. On his way back to the holy city the next morning, he saw a leafy fig tree, which, understandably for the season, was not yet bearing fruit.
And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it. (Mark 11:12–14 )
In one of the superficially strangest episodes of Jesus’ ministry, the tree, in Matthew at least, immediately died: "And presently the fig tree withered away" (Matthew 21:19). Mark, however, exploits the incident and uses it together with the episode of the cleansing of the temple to make the meaning of the withered tree’s symbolism more clear. Whereas Matthew and Luke recorded the cleansing of the Temple as occurring on Palm Sunday, right after the Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Mark places the temple incident the next day (Monday). For literary effect he "sandwiches" it between seeing the barren fig tree Monday morning and seeing it again the next day withered and dead. This symbolizes that Israel has been fruitless, making the cleansing of temple not only a sign of the importance of keeping it clean but also a symbol of the coming destruction of the temple, Jerusalem, and the Jewish nation of his day.
While readers are more familiar with Jesus healing and blessing rather than "cursing," the story of the Fig Tree is important for our day. Just as the Jews of Jesus’ time were held accountable for bringing forth fruit, so, too, are our lives expected to reflect that of Jesus. As he would later teach in the Book of Mormon, Jesus said, "Behold I am the light; I have set an example for you . . . Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do. Behold ye see that I have prayed unto the Father, and ye all have witnessed" (3 Nephi 18:16, 24). While Jesus came primarily as a loving, healing Savior for those who accept him, he was also called to be a just Judge:
For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son: That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.(John 5:22-24; cf John 12:48)
|Elaine and I visiting the Temple Mount on Monday of Holy Week 2012|
TEACHINGS IN THE TEMPLE
According to the Synoptic gospels, during the first part of this week Jesus established the pattern of spending the nights in Bethany and coming to the temple in Jerusalem each day to teach.
And he taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him, And could not find what they might do: for all the people were very attentive to hear him. (Luke 19:47–48)Many Gospel harmonies, because of their attempts to reconcile Matthew and Luke’s sequence of events with that of Mark, assume that his temple teachings were grouped and delivered together on Tuesday. Following the Matthean order, Jesus' teaching did not begin until after the chief priests and elders, who had assumed leadership in Israel, first challenged Jesus:
And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? (Matthew 21:23)After silencing his opponents by challenging them to declare by what authority John the Baptist had discharged his ministry, Jesus proceeded to teach a series of four allegorical parables that illustrated the rejection of Israel's current leadership (Matt:21:28–22:14). The next block of teaching consists of attempts to trap Jesus in his words followed by a final denunciation of the leaders of "old" Israel (Matt 22:15–23:36). The ordering of Matthew thus provides a logical division for the topics that he treated, as well as a convenient way to divide his discourses into two manageable sections for study, the first being treated on Monday and the second on Tuesday.
Authority of Jesus Questioned (21:23–27)
Old Israel Rejected (21:28–22:14)
OLD ISRAEL AND ITS LEADERS REJECTED
But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, "They will reverence my son." But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance." And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. (Matthew 21:37–39)Jesus prophesied the fate of Israel's leadership, and foreshadowed his coming Olivet Discourse, when he compelled the leadership whom he was addressing to admit that the Lord would "destroy those wicked men, and let out his vineyard to other husbandmen" (Matthew 21:41).
Jesus' interaction with the chief priests and elders underscores his position as rightful king. It was his temple, which he had symbolized by cleansing it previous day, and they were usurpers whose predecessors had rejected the prophets and who were themselves about to be complicit in the death of their own king. Objectively, of course, they did not know that Jesus was their king, and in that sense the appearance of Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple that week was one fulfillment of the prophecy of Haggai: the second temple, by this time remodeled and beautified by Herod, was greater than the first temple of Solomon not because of worldly grandeur or ornamentation but because "the desire of all nations" had come into it (see Haggai 1:6-9). Indeed the Lord whom they sought had suddenly come to his temple (see Malachi 3:1), and they had not recognized him.
Significantly for us, these prophecies of the Lord and his messengers coming to temples have had latter-day fulfillment and will yet have further fulfillment with his glorious return, as echoed by the words of the hymn, "Come, O Thou King of Kings":
Come, O Thou King of Kings! We've waited long for thee, with healing in thy wings to set thy people free. Come, thou desire of nations come; let Israel now be gathered home. (Hymn 59, verse 1).
Thus the royal interpretation of the Savior's last week has significance not only historically but also in terms of our hope for the Lord's glorious second coming.
MESSIAH Chorus for the Day: "And He Shall Purify the Sons of Levi."
The words come from Malachi, much of which referred in its first instance to the corruption of the priests in the newly rebuilt second temple at the close of the Old Testament. However, these prophecies also describe well the situation at the time of Jesus. Despite the general condemnation of the priests and Levites, Malachi 3:3 holds out the promise of their future rehabilitation:
And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver:
and he shall purify the sons of Levi,
and purge them as gold and silver,
that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.
While there were doubtlessly good, sincere priests and Levites at the time of Jesus, such as Zacharias the father of John the Baptist, the gospel narratives are clear that the chief priests were corrupt. Listening to this moving chorus reminds me, however, that despite the hard-heartedness of many at the time of Jesus, in the end the Lord will redeem his chosen people. Indeed, the prophet Joseph Smith taught that as part of the restoration of all things, the purified descendents of Levi will make an offering in righteousness again. When singing this chorus, I am always most moved by that last line, which fills me with hope that despite my own flaws and shortcomings the grace of the Lord will purify me and make me of service to him in his kingdom.
JESUS AND THE COMING HOUR
The events in John 12:20-26 are not clearly placed in the week’s chronology, but in John’s narrative they come right after the triumphal entry. Immediately prior some Greeks, who had come to worship at the feast, tried to meet Jesus, thus foreshadowing how all nations would come to Jerusalem to worship and partly fulfilling the aforementioned prophecy that "the desire of all nations" had come.
In Jesus’ brief discourse of "The Coming Hour," he is troubled at the his coming suffering, foreshadowing his plea in the garden to "let the cup pass." Nevertheless, the voice of God comes, reassuring him that Jesus is glorifying the Father.
"Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name." Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." (John 12:27-28)Jesus’ soul being troubled is the first indication that the passion, or "suffering," of Jesus began earlier in this his last week than is often thought. Already at this point he is looking forward to, and feeling the weight of, the events of Gethsemane and Calvary, and the Father quickly assures him that this is part of their work "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (see Moses 1:39). Looking forward to Calvary, Jesus then proclaims, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (12:32–33; cf. 3 Nephi 27:14), thereby indicating what kind of death he should suffer.
See our full blog of Monday in the Holy Land in 2012.