Questions for going deeper with the Scriptures for Sunday, June 3rd
Prayer. It’s something that we all invoke, even if we claim to be spiritual but not religious. But what is prayer all about? Is it us expressing our needs, hopes and fears? Is it God listening to us? Is it an energy that we plug into through centering actions of silence and mindfulness? Is it a way in which we relinquish our will and accept God’s, connecting with the work that God is already about in our world? Today’s scripture points to all these facets of prayer and also offers a deep challenge to an exclusive vision that God only listens to prayers done in one particular spot. Common in Jesus’ day, and mostly foreign to us, this notion of having a privileged or exclusive relationship with God still makes up part of the religious perspective we move in. How do you experience prayer? How do we as a community? How is God calling us to move beyond our expectations, to being a house of prayer in a deeper and wider way?
Theologically Mark 11 wrestles with several themes: the purpose of the Temple – or any sacred place – set aside and used for worship as a house of prayer.
Are there places where God listens to us – or where we connect with the Spirit of God – more than others? Jesus seems to connect prayer more with the way we live than with the space in which we pray.
What is the power of prayer all about? Is it about us making things happen through our faithfulness? Or is it about us connecting with what God is making happen around us?
Intertextually this text is connected with many others through stories connections and the repetition of common Biblical motifs and metaphors and intertextual citations:
The Fruit or Figs on the tree are a common motif for fruitfulness or fruitlessness in the Bible, a symbol for spiritual health or disease [see for example: Psalm 92:12-15; Hosea 10:1, 13, Matthew 7:16-20; John 15:1-11and Galatians 5:22-24].
Jesus throws out the money changers (it’s the same word used for the exorcism of unclean or unholy spirits elsewhere in Mark 1:34, 39 ; 3:15, 22-23).
The words of Jesus in verse 17 are citations of Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. They are a criticism of the Temple hierarchy and business model which is abusing the sanctity of the Temple sanctuary. To worship animals were needed for the ritual sacrifices and offerings. Greek and Roman money had images on it, and were Gentile – thus profane and not welcome in the Temple – even here in the Courtyard of the Gentiles. So the money had to be exchanged for Temple money, and hence the money changes would collect a commission on the money exchange (as we do today). When you look at the larger context of Isaiah 56 [which talks of God gathering people from all the nations (which always means Gentiles)] and Jeremiah 7 which is a denunciation by the prophet of the false religion being practiced in the Temple of his day (check out 7:3-8 in particular) in which the people of Judah did whatever they wanted claiming to be righteous because of their genetic inheritance. What is Jesus saying about the Temple system and community of faith in his day? How does that challenge and invitation apply to us today?
Jesus is starting what we might call an occupy movement. The crowds are so enthralled with his words and the authorities are insecure and threatened by this massive public support for the movement Jesus is starting. We’ve also seen such amazement in Mark 1:22; 6:2; 7:37 and 10:26.
The double encounter with the fig tree and the curse miracle of this text is similar to a parable about a fig tree found in Luke 13:6-9. Is it possible that this cursing of the fruitless fig tree compared to the cursing of the fruitless Temple is related to this parable of a tree that doesn’t bear fruit? Biblicists say that Mark has split the fig tree story, making it an interpretative envelope in which Mark relates the cleansing of the Temple. The fig story helps us as readers make sense of the real story, in the center of it all, what Jesus does and says about the Temple. Scholars also say that this split-story points towards Jesus’ ultimate condemnation of the Temple and prophesy of its destruction in Mark 13.
Jesus’ words in Mark 11:22-25 echo back to Zechariah and other prophets. What mount is he talking about: the Mount of Olives [Zechariah 7-14]? Or the Temple Mount [Isaiah 2:2, Micah 4:1, Zechariah 4:7]? Verse 25 sends us to a teaching on forgiveness Matthew 5:23-24 and the text of the Lord’s Prayer [Matthew 6:9, 12]. What is Jesus saying about prayer and forgiveness? How are they connected to the Temple, the public space and sacred space in which prayer was usually offered and forgiveness received through ritual action and sacrifice?
Questions for wondering and exploring:
• What is Jesus saying to the people of his day about connecting with God in prayer? Who can connect? Where? How? How is Jesus critical of religious authority then? Ours now?
• What is Jesus saying to us and our church community today about how we connect with God in prayer? About our worship? Our the way in which we live what we believe and what Jesus taught in our individual lives and in our life together? Do we practice forgiveness, or merely talk about it? Do we create space for others to worship – in particular those who might be “new” to faith (like the Gentiles in Mark 11) or are we so busy, making our worship space into a loud, busy marketplace in which others cannot encounter God’s presence? What do you hear the Spirit inviting us to do or become?