In Mark 11, things are coming to their pivotal point: Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. This chapter begins with the scene we celebrate on Palm Sunday: Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheering crowds (Mark 11:1-11). He also curses a fig tree that bore no fruit (Mark 11:12-15 & 20-25), chases the money changers from the temple (Mark 11:16-19), and debates with the religious leaders where his authority came from (Mark 11:27-33).Disney’s Aladdin shows us the way a King ought to enter the scene – in the musical number Prince Ali – where Aladdin enters Agrabah with great pomp and circumstance – a great musical parade full of servants and animals. It is Genie’s intention to use all of this to convince the Sultan (and Princess Jasmine) – that Aladdin is a lot more important than he actually is. What Jesus does, arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey (Mark 1:1-11), is precisely the opposite. He doesn’t do anything to make Himself seem more important… however, this is the first time He openly arrives in Jerusalem, and the crowds who have been amazed by His miracle and teachings respond with joy: waving palm branches and singing “Hosanna!” Sadly, it won’t be long before these same crowds are calling for His blood… having been unwilling or unable to accept the challenge His teaching brings. In a sense, it’s no different today. People love hearing about Jesus’ nice side – talking about love, mercy, and compassion… but as soon as His demands make us uncomfortable, we have a tendency to turn on Him.
The Missionaries of Charity – Mother Teresa’s sisters – take four vows in religious life. The first three – poverty, chastity, and obedience – are taken alongside every religious priest, brother, and sister. Their fourth vow, to satiate Christ’s thirst for souls through wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor, is done is response to Christ’s words from the Cross I thirst – John 19:28. Jesus thirsts for each one of us – and His hunger for figs (Mark 11:12-15) seems to foreshadow His cry for souls from the Cross. Here, He finds the fig tree barren – and curses it to never bear fruit again – even though it’s not the season to eat figs. That’s because His hunger wasn’t primarily for fruit from this tree… it was, again, for the souls of God’s chosen people, and in particular the religious leaders of this day who had concerned themselves with external religious practices, but had not allowed their hearts to be transformed. It’s a warning to us as well.
Then, Jesus gets angry (Mark 11:16-19), and chases money changers out of the temple because they were turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves (11:17). We are certainly to treat His House (the Church) with piety and reverence – and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (our hearts) in the same manner. This dramatic scene was also a warning to Israel of the impending (AD 70) destruction of the temple – an event that God allows as a judgment of sorts on their impiety and lack of faith – an event which had previously taken place under similar circumstances in 586 BC (Babylonian conquest).
As the disciples pass by and notice the now withered fig tree (Mark 11:20-25), Jesus speaks to them about prayer. Even when things look bleak and withered (as they will after Jesus’ death and also at the later destruction of Jerusalem), we are to turn to back to God with great faith and hope, trusting that evil does not have the last word. We are to do so with loving hearts – not carrying with us bitterness or unforgiveness, so that these might not become chains which keep us from receiving the forgiveness and mercy which God wishes to offer to us.
(You may notice that there is no Mark 11:26 in many translations of the Bible. This is because Mark 11:26 was an editorial addition from the Old Vulgate – echoing Matthew 6:15: But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions. It fits into the context of this passage, but does not seem to come from Mark’s text.)
Finally, in Mark 11:27-33, Jesus is asked by the religious leaders where His authority to preach and heal comes from. It’s a question that the leaders refuse to answer, because either option will put them into a corner: either denying that God had worked through John the Baptist, or affirming his – and Jesus’ – authority as coming from God. Because they won’t answer, Jesus doesn’t either… because they aren’t asking Him sincerely, but instead are trying to trap Him. It offers an interesting parallel for our everyday life: many who try to test or trap God are never satisfied with the answers they are given. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas:
“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”