Mark 11:1-33, NRSV
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
But you have made it a den of robbers.’
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’
Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’
Preached Sunday, March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday) at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
I’m sure you’re expecting me to preach about Palm Sunday today—seeing as it’s Palm Sunday. And I could. I could tell you about palms and colts, about how hosanna means “Lord, save us” and how I had a childhood preacher who rejected the idea of a Palm Sunday parade around the church before service one year because “we already have enough jack-asses.” True story. That happened.
But in Mark 11, the arrival of Jesus by colt through a tunnel of palm branches is by far the least interesting part.
I mean, after the triumphal entry, Jesus just goes back to his friend’s house. Then he gets up and returns to Jerusalem by way of a very unlucky fig tree. You see, there’s this scene where Jesus is hangry—do you know that word, hangry? It’s when you’re angry because hungry. It’s a sensation I know all too well, I’m afraid. And, I’m always amused when I’m reminded that Jesus gets hangry in Mark 11 and curses a fig tree that hasn’t produced fruit yet.
Then, hangry Jesus makes his way into the temple where he promptly makes like Adele on her seminal 2012 album 21 and turns tables. He flips the tables of the money changers over. Now we often over simplify that moment, thinking he’s objecting to commerce in a holy space. Which, if that was the case, we’re messing up big time because Lord knows we sell a bunch of church suppers out of this holy space. Really, it’s the intent Jesus has an issue with. That is, he objects to manipulation—of the ways the money changers were taking advantage of people who had no other choice but to utilize their services.
You see, to make your offerings in the Temple, you needed a certain kind of currency and the right kind of animals for sacrifice. And it was in the temple courtyard that you could get that—the right stuff. In fact, it had gotten to the point where it was only in the temple courtyard that you could get the right stuff. And the sellers knew it. So they were price gouging and taking advantage of people just trying to do the right rituals so God would keep loving them and caring for them.
But Jesus is convinced that nothing gets between God and God’s people—so he goes and takes care of it, turning tables and all.
Then, Jesus goes home.
He comes back to Jerusalem the same way the next day, and the fig tree that set off hangry Jesus in the first place is now withered and Jesus uses it as a lesson in having faith. With faith you can move mountains and kill fig trees. Well, that’s handy. Luckily for us, he keeps teaching. “If you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you are receiving it, and it will be yours.” Isn’t just like Jesus to take a fig tree and teach us about the power of prayer and belief.
It’s a lovely idea—until what you’ve been praying for doesn’t come to pass and then it throws our whole faith into question. Which is why, when I read this passage, I interpret the greek translated in your bulletin as “believe you have received it” in a another way: “Believe you are receiving it.” You see, faith isn’t about what we’ve got, it’s about what we believe is on its way.
The entire sequence culminates in a confrontation with the religious authorities of the day who pose the central question of the entirety of the gospel. It is the question that get’s Jesus killed and it is the question his death answers. It’s the question all of holy week ponders and it’s the fundamental question that shapes our faith. It’s the question Jesus has spent eleven chapters in Mark preparing to be asked. And it’s the question he’ll spend the next five answering.
It’s a question that lays him in the tomb, and the question that rolls the stone away. It’s a question asked by the very ones who’d kill him. And it’s a question answer by God herself.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” Or, if we put it in our modern tongue: “Who told you you could do that?!”
Jesus, of course, doesn’t give the religious authorities the answer they were looking for to their question about authority. They think they hold the authority, but really it’s God.
I wonder how often we ask that question—even when we don’t ask it using those words. And how often God just rolls his eyes and smiles—and says, Mine.
We’ve had lots of questions about authority since the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. There have been lots of questions about who has the authority to protect our kids, if our kids have the authority to protect themselves, if they have the authority to advocate for themselves. There have been questions about who has the authority to own a gun or regulate who has a gun.
I’m not going to get into the politics of it all. That’s messy territory and it’s easy to get distracted. And now is the time, more than ever, that we can’t afford to get distracted. But here’s what I will say: No political party, special interest group, government or constitution has authority on par with God’s. No weapon or army or shield has God’s power. The authority of Jesus is far beyond whatever false idols and hopes we put our trust in.
I don’t know what Jesus would say exactly in these days, but I know in John 18, he disarmed Peter when Peter tried to defend him in the garden. I know Jesus’ righteous anger in the Temple was at the manipulation and abuse of those who couldn’t advocate for themselves, not those who had political interests at stake.
And I know that Jesus laid down his life that we might take up ours.
Here’s the thing about authority and holy week. It was by our authority that we killed Jesus. And it was by God’s and God’s alone, that he was raised. So when it seems like this world is too broken, that we are too far gone to be redeemed, just remember that. This holy week, remember that. We may have put this world on the cross, but God will bring this world out of the tomb.