Monday, March 25, 2013

The Savior's Last Monday

On the last Monday morning of the Savior’s life, He and His disciples were on their way to Jerusalem when the He saw a fig tree along the path. Under the law of Moses trees growing “in the way” were common property and anyone could freely partake of the fruit. In addition this fig tree was full of leaves and fig trees normally produce fruit before leaves. Being hungry, the sight of a fig tree with leaves meant food, but when Jesus approached the tree He discovered it had no fruit and said, “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever” (Matthew 21:19) and the fig tree withered away.

For many this story is difficult to understand. Why would the Savior curse the tree just because it had no fruit? There are several answers. First, the fig tree that has leaves but no fruit is a symbol of hypocrisy just as people who create a self-image of righteousness but produce no righteous “fruits” are hypocrites. Thus by cursing the tree Jesus warns of the fate that awaits the impenitent and the hypocrites. Second, it was a witness to all who beheld the miracle that Jesus had power not only over life but over death. They had seen him give life by raising Lazarus from the dead, but now they saw that He also had the power to take away life. The lesson had to be taught, but Jesus teaches it in the kindest way possible by performing it on a tree and not a human being. Third, it teaches those who had eyes to see some important things about faith. On the morrow He will instruct his followers more about faith and this experience will help them understand what He is going to teach. It is also a foreboding of what is about to occur in His own life as He is about to die.

After cursing the fig tree, Jesus moves on to the temple and as He approaches discovers that it is polluted with moneychangers and animal vendors. Imagine the scene. Thousands of people have come from far away to celebrate Passover and to perform the rituals that are part of Passover. In order to do that, they need to offer animal sacrifices in the temple, but traveling with animals is cumbersome so they come intending to buy their sacrificial offerings when they arrive. To accommodate them the enterprising vendors have set up their stalls not just as close to the temple entrances as they can, but in the temple compound. Men are shouting for people to buy from them, and their competitors are shouting louder and longer to get attention for their wares. Animals are bleating, bellowing, and cawing. Animal waste is filling the air with noxious smells, and all around is the chaos and confusion of an outdoor market in the height of tourist season. But wait, there is more! The temple would not accept Roman coinage because Roman coins which portrayed the image of Caesar were profane. Thus eager moneychangers are on hand to change Roman coins for the “holy” temple coins, and of course they add to the ruckus in an attempt to attract customers so that they can also make a nice profit. In short, the sounds, sights, smells and feel at the temple that day was anything but reverent and holy.
The interesting thing about this story is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record how Jesus chases away the vendors, but not one of them depicts Jesus as angry. The anger is something we readers assume. But think about it. There are probably scores of vendors and moneychangers at the temple and yet not one of them fights back. If He attacked them with anger it would normally incite anger in them and cause them to fight back. But instead they seem to leave without putting up a fight. Could it be that because of the composed way He disperses them, their own hearts are inflicted with guilt and they leave?They know what they are doing is wrong.

During the first year of Jesus’ ministry He cleansed the temple and at that time declared to the people, “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (John 2:16). This time, at the end of His ministry, He calls the temple His house saying, “My house shall be called the house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). But the next day, Jesus will condemn the people for their wickedness and because of that relinquish the temple with the words, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:38). This is fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, “But if ye will not hear these words, I swear by myself, said the Lord that this house shall become a desolation" (Jeremiah 22:5).

About forty years from the time Jesus proclaimed that the temple had been polluted and was no longer His house, the Roman general Titus invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple so completely that there was not one stone left sitting upon another. This is amazing when one considers that some single stones of the temple were about 67 feet long and 7 feet high and 9 feet wide. The pillars supporting the porches were 37½ feet high. But a temple from which the people have evicted God, cannot stand.

That Monday, those many years ago, was memorable. Because the people refused to believe in Christ and bear the fruits of righteousness, their beloved temple, like the fig tree, was destroyed.

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