This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 22nd March 2015. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book. With this in mind, the readings were Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10 and Mark 11:12-25.
As you came in, each of you should have received a picture – one free in every pack! It looks a bit like an old cigarette card, doesn’t it. Take a good look at it now. Do you know this man? The flashing eyes, the pointing finger, the snarl, the teeth – this surely can’t be Jesus? Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, strolling around in his socks and sandals, stroking his beard, tossing his long flowing hair like he’s in a L’Oreal advert – that’s how He looked, surely. Not this maniac who looks like He’s about to reach through the card & black our eyes!
Personally, I’ve liked this picture ever since I saw it. It challenges me. Because it is so easy to, in effect, dehumanise Jesus by focusing solely on His kindness, His compassion, even His wisdom, but avoiding some of His emotion, His passion. The ‘nice’ bits of his personality are certainly important – the fact He loves us is undeniable to anybody who has read even just one of the Gospels – but Jesus was fully God and FULLY man.
But does that excuse His behaviour in this Gospel reading?
Because, on the surface, He’s being a bit irrational. In the first part of chapter 11, He’s welcomed into Jerusalem like a returning hero, with shouts of “Hosanna! 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!” Palm branches and cloaks were laid in His path – all the stuff we’ll think on next Sunday. But maybe the power has gone to His head? Sent Him a bit off track. This is the following day, the morning after the night before, and Jesus is hungry, but as the fig tree has no fruit He curses it. The following day they find it withered. Quite harsh when you think it wasn’t even fig season! Maybe Angry Christ has lost the plot a bit?
But Mark doesn’t waste words – or show Jesus as anything other than the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies. This is another classic Markan sandwich, where Mark places a similar story either side of a passage to help us understand what is going on.
Jesus has gone to the Temple to find fruit – you could say the fruits of the Spirit – but instead has found the rich exploiting the poor, those with power oppressing those with none, those on the fringes of society, the marginalised, being excluded from any chance of offering proper, lawful homage to their God in His House. After all, it should be a house of prayer “for all the nations” – not just those who can afford the money changers charges.
So Jesus decides to teach the people a lesson – no, not in that way, but in the manner of one of the prophets of old. He enacts God’s word, driving out those who are exploiting the people – then, it says, He teaches them by using words of scripture. No wonder the chief priests and scribes were so angry when they heard what had happened – all of those who found out about the days events, especially in the light of the triumphal entry the day before, would see Jesus as at the very least acting like a messenger from God – and would be aghast to hear the prophecy was, in effect, accusing them of the same failings of their ancestors. Best get Him out of the way before He does much more damage.
So when we, His modern disciples, alongside those followers with Him at the time, see the fig tree, it seems to tell us that Jesus wasn’t some maniac who was eager for figs to be available all year round – a kind of prophetic nod to our modern selection of goods in the supermarkets – but an indication of His point. If the tree does not produce good fruit, it is no use. If the tree is sick at its roots, the whole thing ceases to function. If the worship of the Jewish people was rooted in the temple, and the temple and its keepers were rotten, then God’s Kingdom was under threat.
So this passage isn’t justifying all anger – I am as guilty as anyone at losing my temper inappropriately. When hurt or challenged, even if the other person is right, it can be hard to hold back, not to react & let rip in their direction. But being angry about some things is entirely appropriate.
See how Mark cleverly plays off the unjustified anger of the authorities at being told, entirely correctly, they were not fulfilling their duty to the kingdom, against Jesus righteous anger on behalf of God’s people, oppressed, downtrodden & put upon by those claiming to do it in the name of God.
There are many situations today we, as Jesus disciples, as God’s people on earth, should be rightfully angry about. Oxfam reported that by next year 1% of the world’s population will own more than half the world’s wealth – they will own more of the world’s wealth than the whole other 99% added together! While people across the globe, including in our own country, struggle to afford shelter, warmth, even food – 1 in 9 people go to bed hungry each night, and more people die from hunger than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined each year – just a fraction sit on the means to stop hunger forever. And on the subject of malaria, anyone who watched Comic Relief a week last Friday will now know mosquito nets, which can prevent thousands of children dying from malaria, are two for a fiver. Yet thousands die from malaria each year, as they can’t get the nets. I think that should make us angry.
Closer to home, big corporations, rich individuals, are evading tax – sometimes assisted by our own financial institutions, if the allegations in the press were true a few weeks ago, which takes away valuable income which could elevate austerity measures in this country. I think that should make us angry.
Child sexual exploitation, ethnic cleansing, FGM, people trafficking, executions, racism, sexism, homophobia – we are right to get angry about these things – especially when supposedly carried out in the name of ‘god’ – as each one of them, just as was the case in the temple, are ways that those who have authority, who hold the power, abuse and oppress others – which is the complete opposite of God’s kingdom, of His plan for each and every one of us.
Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away recently, wrote something helpful in his novel Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax is arguing with a member of a religious sect:
“sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—” he argues
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”
The money changers were treating God’s children, coming to His house to worship, as a revenue stream, as a conveyer belt of profit. The authorities were allowing this to happen. Jesus anger was directed at those who were treating their brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters, created each one in the image of God, as things.
As we approach Good Friday, when Jesus was beaten, mocked, abused and killed for each one of us – and Easter Day when He rose again to lead us to eternal life – we need to hold on to the fact he did it for each member of this world’s population, however rich or poor, strong or weak. We are called to be angry on behalf of those who are powerless, however close to home or far away they are, and use that anger to try and make a difference.
The House of Bishops letter that dared to suggest politicians may want to seek “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be,” caused anger and derision from many people, a lot of whom it seems have a vested interest in the current system. “Christians should stay out of politics,” was the accusation. “Religion and politics don’t mix.” It was up to the comedian David Mitchell to point out “If church leaders can’t complain about poverty who on Earth can?”
Through prayer, through our buying choices, through our votes & our willingness to hold to account those elected into authority over us, by our relationships with friends, neighbours and strangers, we can help further God’s kingdom on earth. Let’s take the time to look into issues that affect the poorest in our society, locally and globally, let’s allow ourselves to be moved, upset, challenged and become righteously angry this Lent and beyond, and to ask God our Father, through His incarnate Son Jesus Christ who knew and experienced every range of human emotions, to fill us with His Spirit and guide us to radically love our neighbour, and our perceived enemy, and seek to change things for good.
It seems a huge ask – it may seem like I can’t possibly mean us here. But I do, and we can.
We are all blessed by God, loved by God, empowered by his Spirit. Look around you – We are the body of Christ. Together we can make a huge difference. How??
“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.’”