Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Powerball, Fig Trees, Temples, Curses, and the Relevance of Christianity (Part 1)

I sometimes marvel at how some say that the Christian faith needs to be made relevant to our day and age.  After all, these folks argue, the main events of Christianity happened nearly 2000 years ago.  How can it still be relevant to what is going on today?  Such things make me scratch my head in wonder because Christianity isn’t simply a system and code of ethics–it runs much deeper as it seeks to address the fundamental problem with human nature.  And, I would argue that human nature hasn’t changed much in the past 2000 years in the least.  How so?

Well, let’s start by hitting the biggest headlines of this past week–the headlines that threw most of our nation into a frenzy.  I am talking Powerball.  I mean, millions of people were throwing billions of dollars at the chance to win an absolutely huge amount of cash.  The thought of 1.5 billion dollars captivated the thoughts and hearts of many people.  Why?  Why did the thought of obtaining such a huge amount of money hit so many people?

I think most of us know the answer to that question.  Despite the cliche that “money can’t buy everything,” we still act like it can.  I mean, as a nation, we are a slave to our pocketbooks.  Most of us think we never have enough.  Most of us think, “If I just had more money, everything would be okay.  I would be able to buy the things I want.  Do the things I want to do.  Not have to be beholden to any one or any thing.”  Now, I want to be clear, there are those who do not fall into this trap.  There are those who have gotten past such things, but that’s not everyone–not by a long shot.  In fact, remember, the payout on the Powerball is based upon how many people have bought tickets.  That means 1.5 billion is a small percentage of what people actually spent to obtain tickets.  That means people spent billions and billions of dollars on this scheme, and the real winners are the states who have put together the lottery.  Oops.  Did I just name the state as also wanting money and desiring money to do all sorts of things?  Yes, I guess I just did.  So, what is happening here?  Individuals are captivated by the dollar.  States and governments are captivated by the dollar.  Individuals, corporations, governments, and the like are all captivated by the dollar.  And no one seems to be satisfied with what they have.  They all want more.

Let’s break for a moment and see just how Jesus’ encounter with a fig tree and his cleansing of the temple tie in with this just beautifully.  Let’s look and see how the Bible is still as relevant to today as it was when Jesus walked the earth.

Last week, we saw Jesus enter into Jerusalem hailed as the Messiah–the King of the Jews.  We saw how Jesus walked into the temple, looked around, and as the hour was late, walked out and went camping.  It was kind of anti-climatic, and I talked last week how Jesus was interested in a different temple and a different throne–the temple of our hearts and the throne of the cross.  Today, we see just how Jesus begins to make that clear in His teaching and His actions.

In the morning, Jesus and His disciples are headed back to Jerusalem, and Jesus gets hungry.  He sees a fig tree in the road ahead that is all leafed out.  Jesus approaches the tree in hopes of finding a bite to eat, but when He gets to the tree, there is no fruit.  The gospel writer Mark the tells us, “it was not the season for figs.”  Perhaps, much to our surprise, Jesus invokes a curse on this fig tree.  “May no one ever eat from you again.”  What has happened to Jesus?  Has He suddenly been overcome by natural human emotion and anger?  Shouldn’t the Son of God have known it wasn’t the time for figs?  Why curse this poor, little tree for not having figs when it wasn’t supposed to?

Now, if you don’t know anything about fig trees or the ancient Jewish culture, you would think exactly that.  You would think Jesus positively cruel and petty.  But there is more than meets the eye here.  Personally, I wouldn’t have known such things without doing a bit of homework, but here is what I discovered in my studies this week.  You see, fig trees actually have two times when they bear fruit.  They actually begin producing their first crop of fruit before they leaf out in the spring.  This fruit is called paggim in Hebrew.

Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says in his commentary about this encounter:

After the fig harvest from mid-August to mid-October, the branches of fig trees sprout buds that remain undeveloped throughout the winter.  These buds swell into small green knops known in Hebrew as paggim in March-April, followed shortly by the sprouting of leaf buds on the same branches, usually in April.  The fig tree thus produces fig knops before it produces leaves.  Once a fig tree is in leaf one therefore expects to find branches loaded with paggim in various stages of maturation.  This is implied in 11:13 where Jesus, seeing a fig tree in full foliage, turns aside in hopes of finding something edible.  In the spring of the year the paggim are of course not ripened into mature summer figs, but they can be eaten, and often are by natives.  (Hosea 9:10, Cant 2:13) The tree in v. 13 however, turns out to be deceptive, for it is green in foliage, but when Jesus inspects it he finds no paggim; it is a tree with the signs of fruit, but with no fruit.

And what kind of tree is it that bears signs of fruit but has no fruit?  Well, let me rephrase the question: what good is a fig tree that leafs out and looks beautiful but produces no fruit?  You know the answer.  It’s a worthless tree–especially in an arid, rocky climate like Palestine.  Jesus knows by the lack of fruit that this tree is rotten.  There is something wrong with it.  On the outside, it looks great, but on the inside, it is no good.  “May no one ever eat fruit of you again.”

Is it any coincidence then, that immediately following this encounter with the fig tree, we move to the Temple?  Well, it really isn’t.  For the two stories are intimately related.  The Temple of Jerusalem at this time was a thing of beauty.  It took up roughly 1/3 of the entire city of Jerusalem.  The stones were massive. The columns were huge.  It was the center of Jewish worship and life.  Throngs of pilgrims visited every year–not only Jews, but Gentiles as well.  Jesus looks at what is going on in the Temple, and blows a fuse.  He enters into the temple and disrupts the sacrificial system overturning tables, scattering coin, and preventing people from bringing any sort of goods into the temple.  The question is why?

I mean, when I was in college, I took a class on Judaism, and the professor, who was Jewish was apologetic toward the buying and selling that was going on in the Temple.  After all, the rabbi argued: the Bible was very clear on what kind of animals needed to be used for sacrifice.  The Bible was also very clear about what kind of money could be used to pay your temple tax and give your tithe.  The sellers and money changers were providing a service to the people who were there to sacrifice.  The fact that they would make a little bit of money off the sales and exchanges was just good business.  Jesus really didn’t need to get so angry and disruptive!

I can appreciate my professor’s need to defend the practices of those within his faith, especially in a Christian college environment.  But my professor left off a few details–details that I only came across this past week in my studies.  William Lane, in his commentary points out that the selling of sacrificial animals in the temple was not a long-standing practice.  Historical evidence shows that the buying and selling of sacrificial animals in the Temple was begun by the High Priest Caiaphas sometime around 30 A.D.–which, coincidentally(?) is right around when Jesus began His public ministry.  Why would Caiaphas institute such buying and selling in the Temple?  There was really no need considering that there were four certified market places for the selling of sacrificial animals right outside the city of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.  Why sell animals in the Temple when there were perfectly good markets right outside of town?

Well, think about this for a moment: during Passover, hundreds of thousands of Jews made their way to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices.  That’s a lot of sheep, goats, and doves to be offered.  That’s a load of animals that needed to be bought.  Why shouldn’t the Temple benefit from those sales?  Wouldn’t it be good business for the Temple authorities to allow businesses to come in and set up shop to sell their animals–especially if the Temple authorities charged a fee or received a portion of the sales money to line their pockets?  Doesn’t this make economic sense for the Temple?  You would think so, but remember this: the priests actually got paid by receiving a part of the sacrifice that was offered.  The priests therefore, during Passover had more than enough meat and leather and such to sell and gain income.  The priests were rolling in dough, but they wanted more.

So they allowed merchants to set up shop in the Temple.  Of course, there was only one place for these merchants to set up: the courtyard of the Gentiles.  Please remember, the Temple was set up in tiered layers for worship.  First, you had the court of the Gentiles where all people were allowed to worship.  Second, you had the court of women where ritually cleansed women were allowed to worship.  Then you had the court of Jewish men.  Finally you had the court of the priests which surrounded the Holy of Holies where only one person was allowed to enter once per year.  Now, think about that tiered system, and then think about which layer you would use–as a Jew if you were going to allow the buying and selling of animals.

Of course, you are going to use the court of the Gentiles.  It’s the largest area, and it’s also the “least important” area for Jews.  Who cares about the Gentiles who have come to worship and pray.  They are the least of all in God’s eyes.  The Jewish people were of the most import–after all, they were the chosen ones.  This was reinforced by signs that appeared on a wall separating the courtyard of the Gentiles from the rest of the Temple.  Mark Edwards says again, “The sanctuary was separated from the Court of the Gentiles by a wall, called Soreq, on which the following warning was posted at intervals in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic: “No foreigner may enter within the railing and enclosure that surround the Temple.  Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death.”

Think about this for a moment.  Think about the attitude expressed on that sign. Think about the attitude the Temple authorities had toward the Gentiles by setting up a marketplace in the only place they were allowed to worship.  Does it sound like they were really trying to get people to worship God?  Do these actions really show that the Temple authorities had a heart for helping people–even foreigners come to know the living God?  No.  Not in the least.  As N.T. Wright said, “The Temple had been intended to symbolize God’s dwelling with Israel for the sake of the world; the way Jesus’ contemporaries had organized things, it had come to symbolize not God’s welcome to the nations but God’s exclusion of them.”  Is it any wonder why Jesus goes berserk? This Temple, which was supposed to be a house of prayer for all people had just been commandeered to take money from those selling sacrificial animals on the Mount of Olives and exclude the vast majority of the world’s people from praying in a holy place.  Den of thieves indeed!

And, of course, Jesus’ actions were a direct assault on the Temple authorities.  They were a direct condemnation and judgement of their actions, so they sought to kill Him.  Jesus had dared challenge them.  Yet, in reality, Jesus had just exposed them.  The wonderful, beautiful Temple, had just been exposed as a profiteering scheme instead of a place of worship.  And when you are exposed as committing great wrong, you either admit your mistake or silence the one who is pointing out your mistake.  The Temple authorities made no bones about what they intended, but they feared the crowd because the crowd knew Jesus was right.

The next day, Jesus and His disciples are walking by the fig tree, and Peter notices that the tree is withered and dead.  “Look,” Peter exclaims. “The tree that you cursed is withered from the roots up.”

There is an obvious lesson here.  The fig tree and the temple share the same problem.  From the root, it is bad.  From the root, both will wither.  Both may have looked great from the outside, but once the inner workings were revealed, they were found to be corrupt.  And that corruption will lead to death.

I wish I could tell you this morning that such corruption does not affect you and I, but that whole lottery think this past week proves otherwise.  We too are corrupt within.  We too are rotting from within.  We too have put our trust in external things and do not depend upon God.  We too work to make sure our outside looks great, but we hide the inner workings of our hearts and personal lives to disguise our own short comings.

Let me point at myself here using the example of the lottery.  You see, I remember very well the first time I played the lottery.  It was in my hometown, and I bought a scratch off ticket.  It was a football themed one, and I actually won $20.  So, what did I do?  I cashed the ticked and resolved to give the money to the church.  Sounds very cool from the outside, doesn’t it.  Well, let me reveal to you the inner workings of my heart.

You see, I figured if I showed God how generous I was; if I showed God that I was going to give these first fruits to Him; then He would let me win more.  Of course, I would give some of those winnings to Him, but I would keep the vast majority for myself.  I had some really selfish motives because I was centered on myself.  I wanted the safety, security, and freedom that money could by, and I was going to use God to get it.  Is it any wonder why I rarely won anything more than a dollar whenever I tried to play the lottery after that?

You see, human nature doesn’t change much.  Even after thousands of years, hearts still do not change.  Hearts still want the safety, security, and freedom that money buys.  The false idol of money still rules over many, many hearts.  The question is, if the false god of safety, security, and freedom that money can buy rules the temple of our hearts, and Jesus wants to be in that temple Himself.  How can He displace that false god?  How can He make sure we know that we have safety, security and freedom without money?

Well, next Sunday, we will delve into this as we deal with those last few verses.  Those verses will lead us straight to the cross and to God’s wonderful love that He showed there through Jesus.  We will hear the Good News that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.”  We will see how this news cleanses our hearts and gives us even more than money can buy.  Amen.

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